by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In March 2020, with COVID-19 bearing down on Europe, the Guardian published a stark headline: “Brexit means coronavirus vaccine will be slower to reach the UK.” The European Union would entice drug makers with its massive market, the news article said, meaning member states would get first dibs on any vaccine.
To make matters worse, the United Kingdom was leaving a European governmental entity that allows for “accelerated assessment” of new drugs. Experts quoted in the article warned that it would be “all but impossible” for Britain to develop its own authorization process before the vaccines were available.
Predictions of a procurement crisis did come to pass—but they are a better description of what happened in Europe than the U.K., where Brexit sped up the vaccine rollout beyond anyone’s expectations. Being outside Brussels bureaucracy let Britain move faster and take more risks than the EU, which was hamstrung by its lack of a strong central executive. Instead of buying vaccines individually, member states let the European Commission negotiate on their behalf, hoping their pooled purchasing power would lead to better deals with pharmaceutical companies. But the bloc was so bureaucratic it did the opposite.
Thus it was Britain, not the EU, that got first dibs on Pfizer and AstraZeneca: The U.K. negotiated tighter contracts with those companies, catapulting it to the front of the line. And it was Britain, not the EU, that approved AstraZeneca in December, a month before the Europeans. The U.K. has now vaccinated over 50 percent of its population; the EU has vaccinated less than 20 percent.
The jab gap has turned the tables on the EU, which for most of 2020 had a lower death rate than the U.K. Deaths are plummeting across the pond but rising across the continent. …