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The race to immunize nations

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The race to immunize nations

With Covid-19 vaccines coming soon, the countries likely to pull ahead in protecting their populations aren't a big surprise. Britain has become the first Western country to clear a shot, and the U.S.'s $18 billion investment in Operation Warp Speed has also put it in a favorable position.

But the European Union is forecast to trail its peers in immunizing tens of millions of people as vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca near the finish line. That could leave the bloc vulnerable to the pandemic and buoy U.K. efforts to demonstrate it's better off on its own.

The EU will likely have enough vaccine for two-thirds of its population by September 2021, hitting that level more than four months after the U.S. and two months behind the U.K., according to an analysis by London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd. The estimates are based on the supplies governments have secured per capita, production capacity in each region and the expected efficacy of the shots.

Several Western countries are making plans to begin vaccination imminently, which will require close monitoring of safety. Regardless of how soon they start, immunizing 60% to 70% of the population is the critical point, as it may allow societies to safely reopen without the threat of mass disease and inundated health systems.

The European Commission, which has secured almost 2 billion Covid vaccine doses through six supply agreements on behalf of its members, declined to comment directly on whether they're likely to be able to immunize their populations as fast as the U.S. or other nations.

"What matters is to ensure a quick deployment of vaccines which have been deemed safe and effective," the EU's executive arm wrote in a Nov. 30 email, adding that it is working with member-states to ensure they are ready for distribution as soon as available.

Governments across the industrialized world are already under fire for their flailing efforts to revive economies as the pandemic fills hospitals with about 100,000 patients in the U.S. alone. While concerns grow that wealthier nations will move ahead of lower- and middle-income regions, the prospect of parts of the rich world recovering more slowly than others threatens to create additional international friction.

"Suppose the U.S. marches ahead and gets a lot of its population vaccinated faster than in Europe, you can imagine the pressure European politicians are going to come under," said Simon Evenett, a professor of international trade and economic development at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. "As a source of tensions between countries, this really could spiral."—James Paton

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