Vaccine ‘Fiasco’ May Do Lasting Damage to E.U.’s Reputation

The bloc’s ability to act on other major issues may be weakened after its chaotic inoculation campaign. Here’s the latest Covid-19 news.,

LiveUpdated April 2, 2021, 6:42 a.m. ETApril 2, 2021, 6:42 a.m. ET

The bloc’s ability to act on other major issues, like climate change, may be weakened after its chaotic inoculation campaign. Across the U.S., a decline in testing may be masking the spread of the virus.

A vaccination center in Munich last week. So far, only about 11 percent of the European Union's population has received at least one shot.
A vaccination center in Munich last week. So far, only about 11 percent of the European Union’s population has received at least one shot.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

For decades, the European Union has sold itself not just as the best antidote to another European war, but as “the Europe that protects,” arguing that by its collective size and shared sovereignty, it will deliver a better, longer and more prosperous life to all. With its vaccine rollout in chaos, that promise now looks hollow, and risks undermining the bloc’s credibility when it comes to major challenges.

In Belgium, Alain Walravens, 63, is waiting to be invited for a first coronavirus vaccination. So are Marion Pochet, 71, a retired translator, and her husband, Jean-Marc. At least, Ms. Pochet said, they both have had Covid-19, “so we have some immunity, at least for the moment.”

All three are sharply critical of the European Union, which took control of vaccine procurement and distribution and is widely considered to have done worse than its main partners, the United States and Britain, let alone Israel, which have all gotten vaccines into a much larger percentage of their populations than Europe has.

So far, only about 11 percent of the bloc’s population has received at least one vaccine shot, compared with 47 percent in Britain and 30 percent in the United States.

As European countries lock down again in a new wave of the virus, the reputation and credibility of the European Union and its executive arm, the European Commission, are much in play.

“This is the fault of the European Union,” said Mr. Walravens, an events organizer.

“In other countries where the vaccination is going faster, there are real results,” he added. “The number of cases is going down. Here in Belgium, the hospitals are getting saturated.”

Brussels has always taken pride in its technocratic rule setting for the world, but it has just lost Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy, and even before the pandemic, it was suffering from low growth and a shrinking share of global trade.

After every crisis, whether it was Kosovo or the euro debt disaster, the usual answer is “more Europe.” But unless Brussels can turn matters around quickly, its vaccine crisis may cause member states to resist granting further authority to the European Commission.

“This has been catastrophic for the reputation of the European Union,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Even Guy Verhofstadt, a European Parliament member and fierce European federalist, called the Commission’s performance “a fiasco.”

At the start of the crisis, as nations erected borders and hoarded protective equipment, masks and gowns, there was a huge desire for European cooperation, he said, “not because people liked the E.U. or its institutions, but because they were so absent.”

But the question now, he said, is buyer’s remorse. “The E.U. waded into an area with no expertise and competence and put a spotlight on itself,” he said. “In the minds of many who look at the U.K. and U.S. and Israel, they think we’re doing badly because of European cooperation, and that will have a corrosive impact in other areas.”

A 24-hour vaccination event just outside New Orleans.  In states that are doing relatively little testing, it's possible that their daily case counts are low in part because asymptomatic or mild-symptom cases are going undetected.
A 24-hour vaccination event just outside New Orleans. In states that are doing relatively little testing, it’s possible that their daily case counts are low in part because asymptomatic or mild-symptom cases are going undetected.Credit…Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Declines in coronavirus testing in many states in the South and the Great Plains are making it harder to know just how widely the virus may be spreading in those states, even as restrictions are lifted and residents ease back into daily life, experts say.

States in both regions are reporting few new cases relative to their population, compared with harder-hit states like Michigan or New York. But they are also testing far fewer people.

Kansas, for example, is now testing about 60 people a day for every 100,000 in population, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and Alabama only a bit more. The picture is similar in Iowa, Mississippi and elsewhere.

By contrast, New York is averaging 1,200 tests a day per 100,000, and Rhode Island 1,677 per 100,000.

Testing has been falling in Kansas since Jan. 1, even though hospitalizations were at their highest level of the pandemic then, according to Tami Gurley, co-chair of the virus task force at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The state is now doing fewer tests relative to its population than any state except Idaho.

The tests they are doing in these low-rate states are finding virus.

Twelve percent of Kansas’ coronavirus tests are coming back positive. Alabama’s positivity rate is 12.8 percent. The rate in Idaho is 27.3 percent, the highest in the country. In New York, it’s just 3.5 percent.

So in the states that are doing relatively little testing, it’s possible that their daily case counts are low in part because asymptomatic or mild-symptom cases are going undetected.

Ms. Gurley says she is closely following hospitalizations, as a better indicator of the spread of the virus than new-case reports.

“We think that people are more focused on getting vaccines than getting tested,” she said. “It certainly makes it harder to figure out where we are going. We feel like we are at the point of another uptick in cases.”

Many states in the South and Midwest have relaxed their restrictions, including mask mandates, even though the national data signals that another surge in cases may be coming, according to Edward Trapido, an epidemiologist and associate dean for research at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health.

And many states are shifting resources away from testing to bolster vaccination efforts and meet President Biden’s goal of making all adult Americans eligible for a shot by May 1.

As a result, Dr. Trapido said, in many places these days, only the sickest patients are seeking out a coronavirus test.

“As vaccines have become widespread, people are becoming comfortable about not being tested,” he said. “There is a natural experiment going on. It’s a battle between getting people vaccinated and keeping the percent positive low. When I see a slight change in the curve upward, I get alarmed.”

Ms. Gurley said the shift in emphasis away from testing and toward vaccination may stem in part from widespread public fatigue with pandemic precautions and the political imperative in many states to reopen swiftly.

If all you want to do is prevent deaths from the virus, that may make sense, she said, but “if your end goal is to prevent spread, then we need more testing.”

A nurse preparing a dose of the Moderna vaccine in Los Angeles on Thursday.
A nurse preparing a dose of the Moderna vaccine in Los Angeles on Thursday.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

Federal regulators announced Thursday night that they had authorized Moderna to put 50 percent more coronavirus vaccine into its vials, a decision that is expected to lift the nation’s vaccine stock.

The decision provides new assurance of Moderna’s supply and could speed up its deliveries. Like Pfizer, another manufacturer of a two-dose vaccine, Moderna has pledged to deliver a total of 200 million doses by the end of May and 300 million by the end of July.

Moderna had already begun producing fuller vials in anticipation of the Food and Drug Administration’s decision.

The agency told Moderna six weeks ago that it favored increasing the amount of vaccine in vials that it had previously authorized for 10 doses. In a statement, the company said it expects to begin shipping 15-dose vials within weeks.

The F.D.A.’s ruling comes one day after revelations of a setback to the Biden administration’s vaccine rollout. A factory mix-up ruined up to 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine, and has delayed F.D.A. authorization of the Baltimore plant where that vaccine is being manufactured.

Although Johnson & Johnson has said it will still be able to deliver 24 million doses this month, as promised, all shipments from that plant have been delayed while the F.D.A. investigates and decides whether to certify production lines there.

Federal officials have been counting on Johnson & Johnson to round out the nation’s vaccine supply. President Biden has promised enough doses for all the nation’s adults by the end of May.

F.D.A. regulators also decided to allow health practitioners to administer an 11th dose of Moderna’s vaccine if they were able to extract it out of vials previously designated for only 10 doses.

But the agency noted that unless practitioners use specialized syringes and needles, they might not to be able to extract that 11th dose. They may also be limited to only 13 shots from Moderna’s 15-dose vials.

Those specialized syringes have been in short supply for months.

Moderna was able to quickly modify one or more of its production lines because, while it poured more liquid into the vials, the size of vials themselves remained the same. All three of the nation’s federally authorized vaccine manufacturers have been able to produce more vaccine substance than they have been able to bottle in the so-called fill-and-finish phase.

In its statement, Moderna said that filling the vials with more vaccine was a way to relieve that bottleneck and accelerate production.

The mishap with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine occurred at a Baltimore plant run by Emergent BioSolutions, a subcontractor. Workers there accidentally contaminated Johnson & Johnson’s doses with an ingredient used to produce a different vaccine developed by AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca’s vaccine has not been authorized for distribution in the United States. Emergent manufactures both vaccines at the same plant.

Federal officials attributed the mistake to human error. On Thursday, Emergent executives told employees that the entire lot of vaccine substance — the equivalent of up to 15 million doses — would be discarded.

Emergent issued a statement Thursday saying, “Discarding a batch of bulk drug substance, while disappointing, does occasionally happen during vaccine manufacturing.” The company said the error had been detected through “rigorous quality checks.”

Dining at the Union Square Cafe in March. It had been closed for months.
Dining at the Union Square Cafe in March. It had been closed for months.Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Shoots of budding optimism pop up almost daily in New York City after one of the hardest years in its history.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Central Park called back workers for a reopening this week. Union Square Cafe, a popular Manhattan restaurant that had been closed for months, is feeding diners again. When the Yankees opened their season in the Bronx on Thursday, fans were back in the stands, though limited to one-fifth of the seats.

It may take some time, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. but “the city is going to see a big revival.”

It will not be easy.

By many measures, the most populous city in the United States suffered some of the greatest losses in the Covid-19 pandemic, and it faces one of the longest and steepest climbs back. Shows will not return to Broadway stages until after Labor Day. Many workers will not begin commuting to the office and buying lunch at the corner deli for months — if they return at all.

But for the first time since the city went into lockdown late last March, there are palpable signs of rebirth, fueled by a growing supply of coronavirus vaccines and an impending gusher of federal aid to City Hall, the schools, the transit system, restaurants and theaters.

In Manhattan, a year after Covid-19 cratered the sales market, the borough appears poised for a recovery, thanks to price cuts, renewed confidence in the city and a surge of first-time home buyers.

“Yes, the market is recovering,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “But we can’t oversell and say it’s some sort of boom — it’s just dramatically better than it was a quarter or two ago.”

The city’s outlook has improved as a result of the latest stimulus bill, financial analysts say, which included about $6 billion in direct aid to the city government, $6.5 billion to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and $4 billion to the city’s public schools.

The federal aid will help address some of the city’s biggest short-term problems, including huge drops in revenue from property and sales taxes and fares that the M.T.A., which runs the subway, buses and two commuter rails, is heavily dependent on.

Still, the road to full recovery is strewn with challenges, business leaders and analysts say.

Entire industries, including the arts and the hotel and restaurant sectors, were decimated, with thousands of businesses closing for good. Tourism, a pillar of the economy, is years away from rebounding, according to forecasts. And many companies are making at least some remote work a permanent feature, raising questions about the future of Manhattan without legions of office workers.

“The city still has a ways to go,” said Ana Champeny, director of city studies for the Citizens Budget Commission. “You’ve got to get commuters back in Midtown and downtown, the business district. You’ve got to get restaurants and theaters reopened.”

The New York metropolitan area lost more than one million jobs in 2020, close to double the Los Angeles area’s loss and triple the Chicago area’s, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Low-paying jobs that cannot be done from home accounted for most of the losses, and many may not come back for years, if ever, economists said.

New York’s economy was especially vulnerable to the pandemic because of its heavy reliance on tourists and business travelers to fill hotel beds and seats in restaurants, theaters and stadiums. The number of foreign visitors to New York is not expected to reach its 2019 level before 2025, according to the city’s tourism promotion agency.

Kingsford Smith Airport, which serves Sydney, Australia, last month. As part of strict border closures, the country imposed a cap on the number of passengers who can fly in from overseas, a limit that extends to citizens.
Kingsford Smith Airport, which serves Sydney, Australia, last month. As part of strict border closures, the country imposed a cap on the number of passengers who can fly in from overseas, a limit that extends to citizens.Credit…Loren Elliott/Reuters

Stranded overseas for months because of travel restrictions, three Australians have filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing that the Australian government is violating their right to return home.

Australia’s strict border closures have helped keep the coronavirus largely off its shores, in part by imposing a cap on the number of passengers who can fly in from overseas. That limit extends to citizens, meaning that tens of thousands of Australians remain unable to travel home. And after Prime Minister Scott Morrison failed to make good on a pledge to get “as many people home, if not all of them,” by last Christmas, anger is mounting among those who feel abandoned by their government.

“By going to the U.N., we hope to highlight what an unfeeling government Mr. Morrison heads,” said Deborah Tellis, spokeswoman for the petitioners.

The petition filed on Monday argues that by limiting the number of passengers who are allowed into Australia to about 6,000 per week, the government is violating the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that a person cannot be “arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his or her own country.”

Australia is one of the few countries in the world that have imposed such pandemic restrictions on their own citizens. The government has framed its hard-line approach as necessary because of limited quarantine facilities, and said it has been critical to avoiding the large-scale coronavirus outbreaks seen in other countries.

It’s not clear what effect the petition will have. Some legal experts say that the U.N. committee cannot compel Australia to bring people home, and that the passenger limits do not represent an outright ban on citizens from returning.

But Australians stranded overseas lack other avenues for recourse, Ms. Tellis said.

The petitioners are being advised by international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who is also known for being WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s lawyer.

Ms. Tellis said she had been working as a teacher in India last June when she and her daughter packed up and prepared to return to Australia. Their plans were scuppered at the last minute when her daughter became infected with the coronavirus. For nine months, they made airline bookings only to be bumped off again and again when flights were canceled or the caps were changed. They alternated between couch surfing with friends and living in Airbnbs.

“It was horrible, living in limbo,” Ms. Tellis said. “Finally, I just went into a bit of a, not a mental breakdown, but I was crippled with anxiety and having to see a psychologist.”

They were finally able to secure a flight back last month. She estimates the ordeal cost her 20,000 Australian dollars, or about $15,000.

As of last week, more than 36,000 Australians overseas had registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade saying they wanted to come home. But advocates for those stranded say that the real number is most likely higher. Some, like Josh Simons, have declined to register because, to do so, they must sign a waiver that prevents them from taking legal action against the government.

“Going on that list means you’re basically agreeing that Australia has done everything it can to do right by you, which I can say as a stranded Aussie is just not the case,” he said.

Mr. Simons, chief executive of the tech start-up Vampr, was in Australia at the start of the pandemic. But when his wife living in New Jersey lost her two jobs, he flew to the U.S. to support her. They’ve been trying to return to Australia ever since.

Mr. Simons stressed that he was proud of the way Australia had been able to contain the virus. But intertwined with that is a creeping sense that his citizenship doesn’t guarantee him the right to return to his country.

“I never thought the possibility of feeling like citizenship had zero value would happen in my lifetime,” he said. “I wouldn’t have dreamt in my wildest of dreams that I couldn’t come home.”

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