Today, there are vaccines to protect against at least 20 diseases, such as diphtheria, tetanus, influenza and measles. Together, these vaccines save the lives of up to 3 million people every year – that’s more than five lives every minute, helping people to grow up and grow old in good health.
Vaccinations are an integral part of the panoply of healthcare that has vastly extended the length and quality of our lives in the past hundred years. Most of us received several vaccines as children, protecting us against diseases that just a few generations ago killed and crippled thousands. And our elderly and vulnerable populations are vaccinated every year to protect them against annual strains of influenza. We know that vaccinated children do better at school, and their communities benefit economically. Vaccines advance global welfare and are among the most cost-effective means of doing so.
There are now several vaccines that are in use against COVID-19, and several billion vaccine doses have already been administered. These vaccines protect against the disease and its consequences by developing an immune response to the virus.
Getting vaccinated will also help protect people around you, because if you are protected from developing severe COVID-19 disease through vaccination, you are less likely to infect someone else – someone like your elderly parents or grandparents, who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, or the doctors and nurses on whom we all depend.
While a COVID-19 vaccine will prevent serious illness and death, we still don’t know the extent to which it keeps you from being infected and passing the virus on to others. And the more we allow the virus to spread, the more opportunity the virus has to change into new and potentially more dangerous variants. It is therefore essential to continue with other prevention measures, like keeping a distance, wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently and ensuring good ventilation.
All vaccines authorised in the EU to prevent COVID-19 undergo a scientific evaluation by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and are rigorously monitored to ensure safety. The WHO is working together with the EU and around the world to ensure that the highest safety standards are met for authorised vaccines.
The EMA has so far approved four vaccines for use in the European Union – those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Four others are currently under review, including the Russian Sputnik vaccine. The WHO has validated a total of seven vaccines for use, the four approved by the EMA, as well as the Sinopharm, Sinovac and COVAXIN vaccines.
Like all vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines have gone through a rigorous, multi-stage testing process, including large trials that involve tens of thousands of people. These trials are specifically designed to identify any common side effects or other safety concerns.
It’s true that COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and approved at record speeds, but there has been no compromise on safety – on the contrary, the unprecedented international cooperation and vast amounts of funding have enabled huge clinical trials in real life conditions that usually take much longer to achieve, if feasible at all.
Once a COVID-19 vaccine is introduced, WHO supports work with vaccine manufacturers, health officials in each country, and other partners, to monitor any safety concerns on an ongoing basis.
As with all medicines, side effects can occur after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, and are usually a sign that the vaccine is working by stimulating the immune system to prepare the body to fight the disease. However, these side effects are transient (24-48 hours), and serious side effects (such as an allergic reaction) are exceedingly rare. The fact is: the risk of the disease by far outweighs the risks of the COVID-19 vaccines.
The European Union last year spent more than €1 billion to support the research and development of vaccines and new therapies to cure COVID-19. The new mRNA technology, which has been vital for the rapid development of several vaccines, has been developed in Europe and the United States. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in particular has had strong financial support from the EU (BioNTech has received more than €9 million of EU research funding over the past decade, as well as a €100 million loan from the European Investment Bank in 2020).
The EU provides extensive support for the delivery of vaccines to its Eastern partners either through the COVAX Facility or through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. By mid-November 2021, more than 10 million vaccine doses had been donated to the EU’s Eastern partner countries.
The European Union is one of the biggest supporters of COVAX, a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and fair access to COVID-19 vaccines. The EU’s Team Europe combines resources from the EU, its Member States and European financial institutions and supports COVAX with close to €3 billion, including €1 billion from the EU budget.
A new €35 million EU vaccine sharing action, facilitated by Poland, aims to increase vaccine supplies by reimbursing the cost of vaccines shared with EaP countries by EU Member States.
But the vaccines themselves are only half the story. Equally important is the vaccine infrastructure. Since February 2021, the EU and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been working together to support the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines in the six Eastern partner countries. With a total budget of €40 million over three years, this is the largest EU and WHO joint action ever implemented in the WHO European Region.
EU support under this programme includes training of medical staff involved in the vaccination campaign, key logistical support for the delivery and handling of the vaccines and supplies, vaccination data and safety monitoring, communication and community engagement, as well as support for the development of a digital COVID certificate.
As a result of this support, the EU has to date recognised the equivalence of the digital COVID certificates developed by Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. This means that citizens from these countries can enter and use their national vaccination certification in the EU in the same way as EU citizens do. Work is ongoing with Azerbaijan to meet the requirements needed for equivalence with the EU certificate.
Available evidence suggests that protection against hospitalisation and death from the currently available vaccines is still high. It may vary by vaccine type and age groups, and we know that protection against infection and mild disease declines over time. To protect yourself, get vaccinated with the recommended number of doses and continue practicing the other protective non-pharmaceutical measures against COVID-19.
It could be a friend, a loved-one, a colleague or a neighbour. We all know someone who is strongly opposed to vaccination, a fear often driven by belief in anti-vaccine conspiracies.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 health crisis has provided ample opportunities for the spread of mis- and disinformation, not just in the Eastern partner countries, but all over the world, including in the European Union and the United States.
Whether deliberately spread to divide people, or driven by genuine concern, false information and conspiracy theories exploit our fears and contribute to existing vaccine hesitancy.
People may be exposed to misinformation through the media or opinions and rumours spread in person. But increasingly, it is online social networks which fuel the infodemic. By amplifying attention-grabbing posts, social media algorithms actually incentivise the circulation of misinformation and disinformation, allowing false information to spread faster and further than true information.
The EUvsDisinfo campaign, the EU’s leading initiative to counter disinformation, is continuously monitoring and analysing the spread and impact of vaccine disinformation in the EaP countries and debunking myths.
The EUvsDisinfo initiative has compiled a six-point guide for conversations with vaccine-sceptics to help you along the way with that friend or relative who is distrustful of vaccination. The guide urges you to stay calm, understand, relate, connect with reliable sources, encourage critical thinking, and… know when to stop.
To date the European Union has allocated more than €2.5 billion worth of support in emergency relief to cover immediate needs, or for assisting national health systems and social and economic recovery.
The EU and the World Health Organization are working together, not only on vaccine supply, but to support the health sector across the six Eastern partner countries through the Solidarity for Health Initiative, supplying medical devices and personal equipment. Over 11 million items of personal protective equipment, 12,000 lab kits, over 1,500 ventilators, oxygen concentrators and pulse oximeters, and over 20,000 PCR testing kits have been provided as part of this project.
The EU is also supporting the most vulnerable groups in society, with investments of more than €11 million. Grants of up to €60,000 are given to civil society organisations through the Eastern Partnership Solidarity Programme for projects such as supporting local schools with distance learning, helping women who have lost their jobs, or providing food supplies to the elderly and the disabled. A second programme, COVID-19: Civil Society Resilience and Sustainability, also works with civil society and independent media, helping them to continue providing access to protection and assistance, especially to the most vulnerable groups, as well as accurate information about the pandemic.
The EU is also helping business to survive this exceptionally difficult time, working closely with financing institutions in the EU Member States and globally to support small business, the self-employed and others across the region to help them access local currency loans and apply for grants to boost their businesses. The EU’s assistance is channelled through a new support programme for SMEs and the EU4Business initiative. You can visit the dedicated COVID-19 support pages on the EU4Business website to find out about support measures for businesses in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The EU has made available €500 million through European Fund for Sustainable Development to provide financial liquidity across the Eastern Partnership region, while European financial institutions, such as the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, have been key players in supporting business credit. They have also invested millions in supporting public health systems, building economic resilience, digitalisation, renewable energies and green investments, providing both emergency support and longer-term investment to help build a sustainable recovery.