The Omicron variant spreads far more quickly. It infects far more people. And it is already rampant around the world, and probably unstoppable no matter how quickly borders are closed, or restrictions on socialising are put in place. Still, despite that, the one thing we already know for sure is that booster jabs are very good at controlling serious disease, and governments are scrambling to get as many shots into arms as quickly as possible. There is just one problem. If you happen to live in Germany, there are not enough of them to go round. And, even more worryingly, that may be the first sign the European Union is about to head into a booster crisis every bit as serious as the vaccine crisis that delayed the roll-out of the inoculation campaign at the start of this year.
With infection rates soaring, a partial lockdown in place, and compulsory vaccination looming, you might imagine that Germany, where of course the Pfizer jab most commonly used was created, would at least have plenty of vials in stock. And yet the health minister in the new coalition government warned this week that shortages of doses would hold up the booster programme. The country is now effectively rationing doses until it can secure more supplies.
It probably won’t be alone. There are also signs of shortages of boosters starting to emerge globally, with Australia and Japan also scrambling to get supplies. That is not very surprising. Health ministers who thought they had months to deliver boosters, and even then probably only for the over-50s, suddenly need tens of millions of extra doses — and they need them today. Supply is going to struggle to keep up.
The trouble is, there are already signs that Europe is falling badly behind on boosters. According to The Spectator vaccine tracker, 36 per cent of the UK population has received a booster dose. But the figure is only 27 per cent in Germany, 22 per cent in France, and just 20 per cent for the EU as a whole. Earlier this year Europe’s vaccination programme stumbled badly, mainly because the EU made a complete mess of buying doses. Of course we don’t yet know for sure if the same thing will happen with boosters. But the fact that Germany does not have enough is surely a warning sign. So is the fact the Commission yesterday hastily announced a supply deal with Moderna — helpful of course, but too late for the latest wave.
We already know the EU’s procurement programme is slow and inefficient. It doesn’t have the resources it needs, doesn’t move quickly enough, and keeps buying the wrong jabs at the wrong moment. We will see how the booster programme unfolds. One point is surely clear, however. It was bad enough for Brussels to make such a hash of its initial vaccination drive. If the continent is over-whelmed by Omicron because the EU Commission has not managed to get around to buying enough boosters it will be even worse — and may convince even hardcore supporters that vaccines are too important to be left to the bureaucrats in Brussels.
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