What the vaccination levels tell us about attitudes to risk and innovation in Europe
(This article was published in Japanese for the Teikoku Databank News in May 2021)
The coronavirus vaccine rollout in Europe is providing many insights into how countries in the region deal with risk.
The UK has now vaccinated over half its population, at least with a first dose. This is far ahead of other countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands where less than 20% of the population had been vaccinated by the beginning of April.
However, EU countries are expected to catch up rapidly over the coming weeks as the supplies of vaccines, including single dose ones, become more available. It is also sobering for me, as a British person celebrating my first vaccination dose, to remind myself that over 127,000 people have died of coronavirus in my country, one of the worst death rates globally. Perhaps we took the risks too lightly at first.
The UK did not join the EU’s vaccination procurement programme, even though it could have done. Instead, it appointed a venture capitalist who was a bio scientist with experience in investing in biotech and gave her free rein to invest a substantial amount of money in many different vaccination candidates.
Unsurprisingly, with over 25 member countries, the EU vaccination procurement programme took rather longer to reach decisions, but ultimately the European Medicines Agency has approved 4 vaccination types, more than any other Western agency.
Germany was cautious about rolling out the vaccinations, as it wanted to make sure that a second dose was going to be available within the time limit for effectiveness, before starting. The UK has not been so cautious and now there are supply difficulties. I hope I will get my second dose in June, but whether many people aged 18 or under will be vaccinated by the summer is unclear.
There has been some speculation as to whether, if the UK had been in the EU vaccination programme, the EU programme would have moved more quickly. The British tend to march into unknown territory without too much planning and preparation, and then “muddle along”, fixing things pragmatically as problems occur.
I discussed this with my German business partner and she said that Germans like to come up with a technologically outstanding solution, and then spend a lot of time worrying about how to deal with any risks, before starting on the project. Unfortunately, this is no guarantee that the technologically outstanding solution will actually work. This is how Germany approached the vaccination roll out – building centralized high tech vaccination centres, which meant it started slowly and resulted in a large stockpile of unused vaccinations.
The UK had a similar issue with the billions of dollars it spent on a supposedly “world beating” coronavirus test and trace app and centralized system, which is still not showing much success. It might have been better for both countries to go for a decentralised, low tech solution. Ultimately all countries were constrained as much by their existing technology infrastructure and processes as their attitude to risk – as companies also discovered as they tried to transform themselves during the pandemic.
(6 months on from when this was published, I did get my second vaccination in June, and am having my booster in two weeks. It seems Germany is undergoing a fourth wave of the pandemic, with much graver consequences than in the UK so far – one of the causes seems to be that it took Germany much longer to reach a similar vaccination level of its population to the UK. Whether a centralized system was or wasn’t the way forward is difficult to judge, as in a way the German system was decentralized – at a federal level – perhaps federally centralized would be the way to describe it?)
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