After being criticized for its slow rollout, Europe is ramping up its coronavirus vaccinations. The faster pace is being seen in France this week, where the country has launched a mass vaccination campaign and witnessed the first vaccine doses roll out from a French factory.
The Stade de France soccer stadium outside Paris is usually home to thousands of rowdy fans. But the people passing through its door these days are mostly seniors with another goal — getting their first coronavirus shot.
As of this week, the stadium counts among France’s new so-called vaccinodromes; 40 giant spaces being repurposed into COVID-19 vaccination centers, each capable of inoculating thousands of people a week. This one, in the town of Saint Denis, is based in one of France’s poorest regions, with some of the country’s highest coronavirus caseloads.
It’s putting shots in arms just as the first French factory, Delpharm, began churning out Pfizer-BioNtech shots Wednesday west of Paris.
European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton says this is only the beginning. He says Europe will be the world’s top COVID-19 vaccine producer by the end of 2021, delivering up to three billion injections. A big share of that total will come from France, where five factories are expected to roll out millions of doses each month.
Breton's words bring hope during otherwise grim times in many parts of Europe. Here in France, the country has gone into its third nationwide lockdown amid surging coronavirus cases. Hospitals are struggling, with more than 5,000 people in intensive care.
Scott Marcus, senior fellow at economic research organization Bruegel, is not surprised by Breton’s promise of a massive vaccine ramp-up.
“The historic experience is that Europe is a pharma powerhouse. A lot of vaccines have historically come from Europe,” he said.
But the EU has earned a very different reputation recently. It’s been sharply criticized for its sluggish vaccine rollout, which sees the bloc lagging well behind countries like the United States, Britain and Israel. The World Health Organization recently called Europe's pace “unacceptably slow.”
Citizen wariness of the AstraZeneca shot—amid mixed government messages and fears of potential side effects—hasn’t helped.
France is feeling a special blow. The country is proud of its medical research. Now, some point out, it’s the only permanent United Nations Security Council member that hasn’t successfully produced its own vaccine. French factories will instead be rolling out Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines originally created by non-French companies. Prominent centrist politician Francois Bayrou called it a sign of France’s decline.
Analyst Daniel Gros, a board member of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, looks at the problem another way. He is confident Europe can ramp up vaccine production.
“Europe is not too bad at making things… things which are a bit complicated to make, I think they can and will do,” he said.
Gros is less confident that Europe can learn bigger lessons from its slow start.
“The EU has a decision-making mechanism that is just not suitable for a crisis when you need quick executive action. That is just not what the EU is made for,” he added.
For analyst Marcus, Europe’s vaccine response highlights another problem. He praised the bloc for banding together last year in ordering vaccines. But he pointed to recent clashes over how vaccines are now being distributed among member states.
“The minute things start to go sour, there’s a temptation for every country to go its own way….at times when we need to pull together on the oars, there’s a risk we won’t be pulling together. It’s a real problem, Marcus said.”
Polls show many European citizens are also unhappy with the region's response. At the Stade de France, middle-aged Nicolas called it shameful how some countries are failing to fairly share the shots. Living near the stadium, he agrees Europe’s vaccine rollout could have been better. In fact, everything could have been better, he said — and he’s hoping things will change.