Vaccine development: UK and US outspend Europe 7 to 1

Britain and the United States have each spent seven-times as much as the EU developing vaccines, on a per capita basis.

The figures obtained by Airfinity show both the UK and the US spent just shy of £30 per head on vaccine development, with the EU making a poor showing with an outlay of under £5.

Set against the outcry across Europe at the EU for failing to execute an effective inoculation strategy, the figures show that Brussels has failed to grasp the need to directly assist vaccine development.

“It’s tricky but I just think there are special circumstances in a pandemic,” said Airfinity’s chief executive, Rasmus Bech Hansen. “Everything is a trade-off and timing is just so critical – weeks and months mean a lot.”

And there’s evidence the preciously small amount of money Brussels has put into developing vaccines has been badly spent. At the beginning of 2020, EU officials were wowed by CureVac’s pitch about its prototype mRNA vaccine, and rewarded the German biotech firm with a €80m loan.

The loan was prompted by President Trump’s interest in buying CureVac for America. After stepping in, EU bureaucrats hailed CureVac as a “front-runner in the research”. Little did they know, both the UK and the US were streets ahead in developing mRNA vaccines. CureVac is still to come up with a jab.

The EU, with a population around a third bigger than the US’s has purchased twice as many vaccines, but as the public spat between AstraZeneca and Brussels has hammered home, how contracts were set up, and the circumstances of production make a big difference. The UK and the US have been quicker to arrange, purchase and approve the front-running vaccines.

And while all three have hedged their bets in the anticipation some vaccines would fail, the EU has been hampered in favouring homegrown candidates like France’s Sanofi jab, which has encountered difficulties and is far away from coming into use.

Even if Sanofi had come up with a winner, the US would be benefitting first, having invested right at the beginning. The EU did not.

Little wonder the bloc is widely accused of approaching vaccines with extreme naivety.  

“Pharmaceutical companies are rolling vaccines off their manufacturing plants, and they’re likely to give those vaccines, based on two conditions. What are the earliest and most binding contracts and…the realpolitik: whether you’re situated in a country,” says Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor in the US.

The UK will soon be manufacturing not one but two vaccines, AstraZeneca’s jab developed at Oxford University and US firm Novavax’s offering, which performed tremendously well in trials published today.  

The story on the Continent is much sorrier. Production at the Pfizer plant in Belgium has been halted to expand capacity. Meanwhile, AstraZeneca’s decision to enlist EU-based production facilities to meet its supply deal with the EU, has exposed much wider capacity issues.

The Europeans simply don’t know how to make millions and millions of vaccines.