NYT on Vaccines: How Trump Got It Right, and Europe Fell Far Behind

Posted: Mar 22, 2021 1:05 PM
NYT on Vaccines: How Trump Got It Right, and Europe Fell Far Behind

In a deep dive article published over the weekend, the New York Times chronicles some important lessons from the ongoing Coronavirus vaccine distribution saga.  The Washington Examiner's Byron York summarizes the findings with three take-aways: First, "Trump's leadership on vaccine was vastly better than anyone in Europe."  Second, "when it came to a vaccine, Britain was smart to leave the EU."  Third, elite opinion was "dreadfully wrong" on both counts.  The piece begins with a vignette of President Trump fielding calls from European leaders desperate for advice about how they might belatedly replicate some of America's success in this critical area.  They still haven't caught up:

Since [last year], the rollout gap between Europe and the United States has only widened, and some of the countries hardest hit early in the pandemic are facing a deadly third wave of infections. France, large parts of Italy, and other regions are back in lockdown. Roughly 20,000 Europeans die of Covid-19 each week. The Continent was dealt a further setback when a scare over blood clots and brain bleeds led several countries this week to temporarily halt the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Most of them resumed using it on Friday, after Europe’s top drug regulator vouched for its safety, but public confidence in the shot has been badly shaken... There is no single culprit. Rather, a cascade of small decisions have led to increasingly long delays. The bloc was comparatively slow to negotiate contracts with drugmakers. Its regulators were cautious and deliberative in approving some vaccines. Europe also bet on vaccines that did not pan out or, significantly, had supply disruptions. And national governments snarled local efforts in red tape.

The panic-driven pause on AstraZeneca vaccine administration, due to feared potential side effects, was baseless, but it caused serious harm -- both on the already-poor rate of shots, and on Europeans' already-shaky impressions of the vaccine's safety.  The vaccine is in fact safe and effective, as an American trial has just concluded:

Covid-19 vaccine was shown to be safe and 79% effective in preventing symptomatic disease in widely anticipated U.S. clinical trials, providing a vote of confidence for the shot and a pathway for its authorization in the U.S. The interim trial data showed the vaccine, developed in partnership with the University of Oxford, was 80% effective in participants aged 65 and over, a group previous AstraZeneca trials lacked in large numbers. The shot was also found to be 100% effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization across ages and ethnicities. The company said it would continue to analyze the data and prepare to request emergency authorization in the U.S. in coming weeks. If approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the vaccine could be available as early as next month, joining three other approved shots in America’s accelerating vaccine drive.

"The U.S. trials identified no increased risk of serious blood clotting," the Journal reports.  Ultimately, the Times reports, the Trump administration decided to 'go big,' while Europe dithered:

But the biggest explanation, the one that has haunted the bloc for months, is as much philosophical as it was operational. European governments are often seen in the United States as free-spending, liberal bastions, but this time it was Washington that threw billions at drugmakers and cosseted their business...Brussels, by comparison, took a conservative, budget-conscious approach that left the open market largely untouched. And it has paid for it. In short, the answer today is the same as it was in December, said Dr. Slaoui. The bloc shopped for vaccines like a customer. The United States basically went into business with the drugmakers, spending much more heavily to accelerate vaccine development, testing and production...“They assumed that simply contracting to acquire doses would be enough,” recalled Dr. Slaoui, whom President Donald J. Trump hired to speed the vaccine development. “In fact what was very important was to be a full, active partner in the development and the manufacturing of the vaccine. And to do so very early.” The result in Europe is a stumbling inoculation effort that has led to political fallout, with leaders pointing fingers over why some of the world’s richest countries, home to factories that churn out vast quantities of vaccine, cannot keep pace with other wealthy nations in injecting its people.

This is hardly a rebuke of the free market (private industry worked wonders in developing wildly successful vaccines in record time), nor is it a rejection of fiscal restraint. It is an entirely appropriate role of government to intervene to confront a vast public health emergency, especially one as severe as a deadly global pandemic. If ever there were a scenario under which the federal government should mobilize on a massive scale, and not pinch pennies, this was it.  And if ever there were a time to cut through bureaucratic entanglements in order to hasten the achievement of a desperately urgent goal, this was it. The Trump administration recognized this, and many American lives have undoubtedly been saved as a result of their decisions. Trump's erratic rhetoric and total lack of discipline on COVID messaging helped cost him a second term. But on perhaps the single most important leadership decision he could have made on this front, he got it right.  And so have Boris Johnson and the UK, whose Brexit decision -- widely panned in alarmist terms by elites -- has never looked better:

Europeans are stung, especially, to see Britain’s rollout going so well after the country exited the bloc. Everyone wants to know why the E.U. has not triumphed...“In a crisis, it always becomes clear that the E.U. is not a country,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, of the German Marshall Fund. He said the bloc approached vaccine procurement like a contract negotiation when in fact “it was a zero-sum game with limited supply.” ... Dr. Slaoui said Washington and London approached the crisis in lock step. He recalled biweekly meetings with his British counterpart, Kate Bingham, but said Europe went its own way. “If you’re at the table from day one, and you paid to be the first to pick from the menu, you’re going to eat first,” he said.

The story goes on to cite EU sclerosis, indecision and endless bureaucracy as harmful factors, with a blame game actively underway.  Then there are the "administrative hiccups" on a continent dominated by the administrative state: 

“In the U.S., there is a much more flexible, liberal system and you just vaccinate people who come along. Same in the U.K. And it can go quicker. Here it is quite regulated,’’ said Steven Van Gucht, the Belgian government’s top virologist, who said it was too soon to know which system is better. Administrative hiccups have exacerbated the problems. In Frankfurt, Elke Morgenstern was escorted out of a vaccine center because she enrolled using the wrong online application. “It was embarrassing,” said Ms. Morgenstern, adding that she qualified for a vaccine because of a pre-existing condition. Because of the AstraZeneca shortages, she cannot book another appointment before May. “It is a catastrophe how they are handling things here,” she said. In the Lombardy region of Italy, once the epicenter of the pandemic, the vaccination campaign got off to a slow start in part because the top health care official refused to marshal medical workers over the Christmas holidays. Technical difficulties worsened the problems at the region’s vaccination centers. “Some sessions were empty,” said Paola Pedrini, the regional secretary general for Italy’s family doctors federation. “For some others, they called 900 people when they could only vaccinate 600.”

Incompetence, useless micromanagement, and lack of urgency. A deadly combination, in this case. Meanwhile, more good news is on the way for vaccine-hungry Americans:

"The U.S. monthly output for the three authorized vaccines is expected to reach 132 million doses for March, nearly triple the 48 million in February, according to estimates by analysts at Evercore ISI," according to the report.  Then again, there are still some dark blots on the US record.  Consider how poorly New York State has handled protecting its most COVID-vulnerable citizens -- seniors -- from the virus.  Governor Andrew Cuomo forced infected and contagious residents into nursing homes, then covered up the deadly results.  At the back end of the pandemic, his state is languishing near the very bottom of the list on getting seniors vaccinated, another awful failure:

Another analysis of the same data puts New York in 44th place, with Florida in first place.