Opinion | How Did the E.U. Get the Coronavirus So Wrong?

The second prescription is to build on European joint procurement of vaccines and equipment. Much of the struggle right now is getting adequate supplies of equipment like masks to the right places. The pandemic is likely to finally end when there is a vaccine; the risk is that getting adequate supplies of a vaccine will not be easy or harmonious.

The European Union has a secret weapon here: its size. With 446 million people, it is the world’s largest market for many drugs and medical devices. Since the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, E.U. member states have increasingly worked together to negotiate and purchase vaccines and medicines.

That’s the good news. But it could be done faster and better. Negotiating a price together is hard enough, since some governments have more sympathy for the pharmaceutical companies than others. But even negotiating a price is not the same as buying enough and allocating it according to need. A transparent and reliable mechanism to purchase medicines and devices together and allocate them by need would be a major E.U. contribution to health. That is sure to be especially critical in the coming months once a coronavirus vaccine is developed. A bidding war over scarce vaccines is one individual European countries might often lose, but the Union as a whole, with its immense market, cannot lose.

Finally, the member countries need to use the bloc to get their act together when it comes to disaster responses. RescEU, the European Union’s organization for crisis response at home and abroad, is a year old. It is set up to look for win-win solutions, like pairing countries with spare firefighting capacity and countries with unexpected wildfires. It is not set up to manage continentwide crises like this pandemic. Nor does it really have its own resources. It relies on member states deciding, case by case, to help out. Only late last month did RescEU start developing stockpiles of key resources like masks, ventilators, vaccines and laboratory equipment for handling a pandemic.

The European Union should allocate actual resources to RescEU: above all money that can be quickly released, but also dedicated stockpiles, staff and equipment for key risks.

None of this will be easy. Member nations of all political affiliations have resisted E.U. intervention in health care and most public health policy. Driving down prices through joint procurement will be resisted by influential pharmaceutical lobbies, especially in countries like France and Germany. Politicians will resist allocating vital supplies by need rather than nationality. Even within decentralized countries, Spain and Italy as much as the United States, politicians will fight for their own jurisdictions and credit. Big and rich countries will see less value in cooperation than smaller and poorer ones. It is always easy to underfund stockpiles when there is no crisis.

But European integration is too far along for it to be avoided. Europe’s economies are tightly woven together. They can no more be isolated for a year than their individual citizens can be. The European Union institutions will have to lead the members out of their shared public health crisis. That will require measures enable the member states to take joint action.

These changes will help the European Union deal with its problems right now, so that its economies and societies can exit their medically-induced coma, and in the future, because threats to health like Covid-19 will not go away. Europe is only as safe as the least safe place in it, and that is why governments and citizens need to ensure the E.U. can make all of Europe safe.

Scott L. Greer (@scottlgreer) is a professor of health management and policy, global public health and political science at the University of Michigan.

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