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New Year – not so old Challenges: Europe’s struggle to raise vaccine acceptance

“Happy New Year” was probably never said more hopefully. After a challenging year which was mostly dominated by the still ongoing pandemic, many people in Europe and all over the world were happy to call an end to 2020. Thanks to all the vaccinations, we are a big step closer to a normal life. Nevertheless, the pandemic is not over yet. And one of the greatest challenges is still ahead of us: To convince the European citizen to get a jab.

A lot has been done in 2020. Scientist all over the world worked on finding a vaccine or treatment against the corona virus – with success. A mass programme against Covid-19 has begun. December 27 2020 was the day when the EU started vaccinations. "It's Europe's moment. On 27, 28 and 29 December vaccination will start across the EU", President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. In an effort to ensure fair access across the bloc, the EU is carrying out a coordinated vaccination program. The Commission has been negotiating intensely to build a diversified portfolio of vaccines for EU citizens. Germany, France, Spain and Belgium are among eight European countries which have agreed to coordinate efforts tied to the approval and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccine acceptance is the next hurdle. And this seems to be true in particular for Europe. Europe's vaccination acceptance is currently below world level and far behind countries like India or China. On average, 73 per cent of the people worldwide said in October 2020 that they would like to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While in France it was only 54 percent, in Spain 64 percent and in Germany 69 percent. And as a vivid reader of our beloved little blog, you will sure remember that this isn’t a new problem across Europe.

Europe has been a deep pocket of doubt when it comes to vaccines already before the ongoing pandemic. This was the cause for major problems such as the rising spread of diseases long deemed gone – as for example the rise in measles infections.

The fact that the new vaccines against the corona virus are based on a new technology and were developed in a record-breaking time don’t make it easier to convince Europeans. The first two vaccines approved in the EU are based on an mRNA. A technology that has not been approved for humans so far and that comes for many people with concerns. However, according to health experts there is no risk that RNA can penetrate the human genome since the chemical structures are too different. Moreover, the mRNA from the vaccine does not stay in the body, but is broken down shortly after vaccination. Furthermore, COVID-19 vaccines are developed following the same legal requirements for pharmaceutical quality, safety and efficacy as other medicines despite their accelerated development and are rigorously monitored through the EU. For the COVID-19 vaccines, additional special measures are in place to quickly collect and evaluate new information. While usually manufactures must send a safety report to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) every six months, safety reports for the COVID-19 vaccines must be sent every month.

The WHO is recommending a range of well-designed programme strategies to drive acceptance and uptake. According to its own research it is not enough to provide information on vaccines to encourage their uptake. Factors that drive people’s behaviour when it comes to vaccines are an enabling environment, social influences, and motivation. However, this pandemic has been accompanied by an overabundance of information and misinformation, a so-called ‘infodemic’. A study in the medical journal "The BMJ" found a direct link between social media disinformation campaigns on vaccination and lower vaccination rates. Hence, what European countries, from the North to the South and from the West to the East, need to do is to communicate consistently, transparently, empathetically and proactively about uncertainty, risks and vaccine availability. That will contribute to building trust. Moreover, showing trusted community figures, in particular health professionals, getting vaccinated can harness social influences.

Germany for instance already started its campaign “Ärmel Hoch!”: The advertising motifs show people from different population groups pushing up a sleeve of their clothing and wearing a plaster – obviously as a result of vaccination. As the campaign will run in two phases, the first one will appeal to the solidarity of the population with a view to the prioritised groups, while the second aims to motivate the rest of the population to get vaccinated. Implementing these campaigns will be crucial for the success of the vaccination process.

Be sure, we will get vaccinated once it is our turn. Until then, the Brussels’ office wishes you a happy, safe and – above all – healthy New Year 2021.


Kontakt: Teresa Vázquez López (Büro Brüssel),