If European countries are going to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine every time there is a random stochastic death, it would be better if they handed their stocks immediately to Africa and poorer regions of Asia.
The vaccine saga has degenerated into the most abject spectacle of European misgovernment in my working lifetime – although for sheer ineptitude it is hard to beat the absence of a lender-of-last-resort during the eurozone debt crisis.
It is what happens when you push the precautionary principle to the point of absurdity. Once zero-risk thinking becomes reflexive – and institutionalised in law – it leads you into a cul-de-sac of systemic self-harm.
We have extensive epidemiological data in the UK’s weekly “yellow card” summary of vaccines. As of February 28, there had been 227 deaths shortly after the Pfizer-BioNTech jab and 275 after the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. It is a statistical miracle that there had not been more.
AstraZeneca reported 15 cases of deep vein thrombosis and 22 cases of pulmonary embolism following the jab out of 17m doses in the UK and Europe. “This is much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed Covid-19 vaccines,” it said. One might (frivolously) infer that the jab protects against these events.
Belgium’s health council has refused to join the stampede as Germany, France, and Italy are swept along by mood, all ignoring the European Medicines Agency. The Belgians stated that blood clotting cases occur “in the same order of frequency as with the Pfizer vaccine”. Quite.
What is absolutely certain is that significant numbers of Europeans will die of Covid because time is imperative and they do not have an alternative at hand. These will no longer be random stochastic deaths. People will die as a direct result of the action of their regulators and governments. Others will suffer organ damage and the well-known pathologies of long-Covid.
Europe’s leaders have by now irreversibly destroyed confidence in the vaccine. Yet France is currently relying on AstraZeneca for over 50pc of its jabs. Italy was counting on it to cover 38pc over the next two weeks. Both countries face a rising third wave that is escaping control.
The feckless handling of AstraZeneca’s vaccine has fed alarmism about vaccinations in general and played to the anti-vaxxers. This will kill even larger numbers. Europe’s leaders should not be surprised if people start to turn against the Pfizer-BioNTech jab since it too – obviously – can be impugned in the same way by random stochastic cases.
The jab suspension makes it even more likely that France’s Emmanuel Macron will lose the political gamble of his presidency. He defied scientific advice in January and refused to impose another lockdown, arguing that every week of delay was a week gained for society and economic recovery.
It was also a week gained for the British, South African, and Brazilian variants. Greater Paris has reached saturation of critical care beds. Patients are being shipped out to the regions. There will soon be Covid TGV trains to Bordeaux.
This episode of vaccine sabotage more or less guarantees that large parts of Europe will have to follow Italy into partial or full lockdowns through Easter, and probably as far out as early summer. The second tourist season slips away. One can try to calculate the exorbitant economics costs of delayed reopening but the effect is non-linear. There comes a point when the structural damage goes so deep that it never recovers.
I argued last December that Europe’s vaccine travails – already implicit then – amounted to a black swan event for the EU project and risked morphing into a dangerous political crisis. But I never expected to see a collective lurch into scientific obscurantism.
Where did it all go wrong? The precautionary principle was incorporated into EU jurisprudence with the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 and has become over time the defining ideological feature of an ageing, defensive, status quo society that seems to be afraid of everything.
As it happens, 1997 also marks the moment when Europe began to decouple from the US and go into economic decline, although monetary union also dates from that time and has played a role. It is an astonishing thought that per capita income in the eurozone had actually slipped to $39,928 even before the pandemic hit, while in America it had kept rising to $62,795, according to World Bank data. The post-Covid gap will be even wider.
The precautionary principle has been married with another EU deformity: its slow, rigid, legalistic ethos, and its 190,000 pages of near-irreversible Acquis. The two together have reinforced each other in a paralysing fashion. This regime is perfect for vested interests that know how to play the Brussels game and manipulate the regulatory committees. The zero-risk code can be mobilised to shut out rivals and new technologies that pose a commercial threat.
Is it a coincidence that the EU has become a technology spectator over the last quarter century, while America and China vie for supremacy? Might the precautionary principle be the reason why not a single one of the world’s 20 most valuable tech companies is European, and why the region lags again in artificial intelligence?
It is true that BioNTech’s ground-breaking mRNA vaccine was made in Germany, but its founders are Turkish immigrants and most of the clinical trials took place in the US, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. It is famously difficult to conduct clinical trials in the EU.
It is also true that the precautionary principle has made inroads into Anglo-Saxon societies. But only up to a point. The US, the UK, and Canada still cleave towards the ‘innovation principle’, a preference for trial-and-error and a willingness to risk failure along the way — “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
You could argue that this philosophy has its roots in English Common Law, a legal culture that loosely permits behaviour unless explicitly forbidden by statute. It is fundamentally different from Napoleonic law that prohibits behaviour unless explicitly authorised – “guilty until proven innocent”. Legal scholars will object to this contrasting schema but it contains a nugget of truth.
The innovation philosophy also has roots in the Baconian Method: the scientific interrogation of facts: the bottom-up empiricism of Francis Bacon and his followers, from Newton through to the Scottish Enlightenment, and beyond. There are great Baconians in Continental Europe of course, but they are not dominant.
What is dominant is the top-down Cartesian Method instilled into the French civil service, and through them into the EU’s machinery. It has fused with the zero-risk totemism of modern Germans to produce a precautionary monster, and a long list of destructive policies. The consequence of banning GMO crops – that is to say, refusing to use technology to tweak genes for better yields – is that you end up using more chemicals instead. Cui bono?
When Germany began to shut down its nuclear plants in a fit of hysteria after Fukushima, heavy industry turned to coal instead, pushing up CO2 emissions and killing measurable numbers of people with toxic particulates.
The vaccine saga has driven home the point that the British people really are different animals from Continental Europeans, a cultural distinction that dates back at least 700 years and one that is amply explored by Cambridge anthropologist Alan MacFarlane in The Origins of English Individualism. This island Sonderweg is not a myth.
Vaccine take-up has been extraordinary. People have been rational and have shown trust in scientific authority, other than a few pockets contaminated by social media. Sang-froid has prevailed. Europe’s alarmism seems completely foreign at this juncture.
The issue is not so much that the UK has had a good vaccine rollout while the EU has stumbled. It is the mental chasm that matters. We can see more clearly than ever that Baconians cannot share a close political, legislative, and judicial union – tantamount to a unitary state – with anti-Baconians in thrall to an extreme form of the precautionary principle. The relationship is unworkable.
Europeans have to ask themselves whether they want to end up in a permanent defensive crouch while the rest of the world moves on. One thing is sure: a zero-risk society is finished as a civilisational force. It is dead.