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Europeans Criticize The Slow Start To COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout In EU

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Countries like the United States, the U.K. and Israel have a head start on providing COVID-19 vaccinations, and that has led Europeans to criticize what they say is a slow rollout of vaccines. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: For a month now, Europeans have sat inside their locked-down homes watching news reports of Americans and Brits getting the world's first vaccines for COVID-19. And as commentator Stefan Kornelius says, they've spent the holiday season quietly stewing as their own European Union finally got around to approving its first vaccine a few weeks later, just in time for a two-week Christmas break.

STEFAN KORNELIUS: People want to see this vaccination happening fast and quick, and that's not taking place.

SCHMITZ: Kornelius, political editor of the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, says Germans in particular have been sour about how slowly they think Europe is moving on the vaccination front. German politicians and newspapers have blamed European Union leaders for moving too slowly and for wanting to control the entire vaccination rollout for all its 27 member states.

WERNER MUSSLER: There is obviously someone who has to be blamed because there is not enough vaccines in Germany at the moment. So who can take the blame? It's normally the EU.

SCHMITZ: But Brussels-based correspondent Werner Mussler, who writes for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, says the truth is more complicated. Last summer, EU leaders agreed to order 2 billion doses of the vaccine from six different producers. An effort, says Mussler, to diversify risk.

MUSSLER: Nobody knew exactly what - which kind of vaccine would be successful in the future. So the approach was to negotiate with really every potential producer.

SCHMITZ: In November, when it became clear the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were further along in their trials than the others, Mussler says the EU could have ordered more from those particular suppliers, but it didn't, partly, he says, due to cost. Moderna's vaccine cost $22 a dose; the Pfizer-BioNTech one, around $15. A dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine cost around $2. In the end, Stefan Kornelius says these delays will likely soon be forgotten as the EU is on the brink of approving both the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines, and BioNTech is finishing construction of a massive production facility in Germany. Kornelius thinks German Health Minister Jens Spahn's prediction that all Germans will have access to a vaccine before July may likely pan out. He says the EU's approach to the vaccine is an easy target for criticism, especially for politicians in what is an important election year for Germany. But in the end, it'll prove to be effective.

KORNELIUS: Just imagine Germany would have sort of stepped forward with a higher buyer's power and bought supplies from one producer in huge quantities and left other European countries behind. That would have caused a huge outcry and political trouble within the European Union. So you have to act unified.

SCHMITZ: With Britain gone from the EU and with countries like Hungary and Poland threatening to unravel the bloc, Kornelius says Germany cannot afford to be a vaccine nationalist. Acting as one European Union with the buying power of 250 million citizens has not only helped negotiate good prices for vaccines, but it's also ensured a unified distribution that, he says, will be more obvious once the bloc approves more vaccines in the weeks ahead. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "SEASON SHIFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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