BRUSSELS – Despite a sluggish start, the European Union's COVID-19 vaccination drive has caught up to that of the United States, where the slowdown of the country's once-vaunted campaign has contributed to the virus's deadly comeback.
In mid-February, less than 4% of people living in the 27-nation EU were at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared with nearly 12% in the U.S, according to Our World in Data, an online science publication connected to the University of Oxford.
Now the EU has surpassed the U.S. by that same measure, with some 60% of the bloc's residents receiving at least one dose, versus less than 58% of Americans.
In Italy, where roughly 63% of people 12 and older are fully protected, Premier Mario Draghi took a victory lap this past week.
“I said that I don’t want to celebrate successes, but it must be said that Italy has inoculated more doses per 100 inhabitants than France, Germany, the United States,’’ he said as the country’s vaccine verification program went into effect Friday.
People in Italy must now show proof they have had at least one vaccine dose, recovered from COVID-19 or recently tested negative for the virus if they want to dine indoors, use gyms or go to concerts, theaters, museums and tourist sites such as the Colosseum.
European authorities attribute success in Italy and elsewhere to nationalized health care and a history of public confidence in the safety of immunizations.
The EU’s slow process for approving the vaccinations set the bloc back at the beginning, but that is now paying dividends because it is instilling more confidence in the rapidly developed formulas, said Dr. Peter Liese, a European Parliament member from Germany.
While the U.S. and Britain issued emergency authorizations of vaccines to get shots into arms quickly, the EU went through the longer process of granting full approvals, putting it weeks behind.
“I am convinced that we have a good argument to explain to people still hesitating that the vaccine was properly tested in Europe,” Liese said recently. “Now it becomes clear that not only the pace of vaccination in the first months but also the long-term strategy is important.”
The turnaround in Spain has been pronounced. In mid-April, when nearly a quarter of all Americans were fully vaccinated, only 7% of Spaniards were similarly protected, according to Our World in Data. Now, nearly 60% of Spain's roughly 47 million people are fully vaccinated, while about half the U.S. is.
Portugal, with around 10 million people, had fully vaccinated around a third of its population by the end of June. Now officials say it is on track to reach 70% by the end of the summer.
Like the American vaccination drive, the European Union effort started around Christmas and struggled to meet initial demand. But it quickly turned into a major political embarrassment for European officials, as the U.S. and Britain jumped ahead.
The major factor holding back the EU initially was its decision to purchase vaccines as a bloc instead of as individual countries. The move ensured smaller member nations weren't left out, but it ended up taking more time to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, said Giovanna De Maio, a visiting fellow in international relations at George Washington University.
The U.S. was also more efficient in distributing the vaccine, quickly setting up large-scale vaccination sites and also supplying shots to neighborhood pharmacies, groceries and other places, while the EU initially focused on hospitals and other medical facilities, she said.
EU nations were also overly confident manufacturers would deliver. As it turned out, Astra-Zeneca failed to produce its shots on time and delivered a paltry number of doses. Concerns over its safety and effectiveness also contributed to vaccine skepticism. But with the major rollout of the Pfizer shot, things turned around.
Meanwhile, the U.S. vaccination effort peaked and then dropped off dramatically in the face of significant hesitancy and outright hostility, fueled by misinformation and partisan politics.
As of the end of July, the U.S. was dispensing under 600,000 shots a day on average, down from a peak of over 3.4 million a day in April. The highly contagious delta variant has sent new daily cases soaring over the past month to levels not seen since February. The vast majority of those hospitalized were not vaccinated.
Still, not all is well within the EU. Discrepancies between member states are huge. For example, in the Netherlands, 85% of adults have received at least one dose. In Bulgaria, it is less than 20%.
There are also troubling signs that Europe's campaign is losing steam.
In Germany, where 54% of the population is fully vaccinated, the number of shots being dispensed per day has declined from more than 1 million in May to about 500,000.
Officials there have begun pushing for more vaccinations at megastores and in city centers and are offering incentives. A vaccination drive in Thuringia state included free bratwurst, while sites in Berlin planned to have DJs play music this weekend in hopes of encouraging young people to get inoculated.
De Maio said she believes nationwide vaccine mandates like her native Italy's Green Pass program could help EU nations avoid America's fate.
“European politicians see it coming and they’re taking these measures,” she said of the potential for vaccination efforts to stall in Europe. “They’re desperate trying to avoid that because Europe can't afford another lockdown, given the big economic toll COVID has already taken.”
Marcelo reported from Boston. Associated Press reporters Frank Jordans in Berlin, Frances D’Emilio in Rome, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this story.