The U.S. and Britain are vaccinating at a blistering pace—with very different results. Here’s what the U.K. did right

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Vivienne Walt
·5 min read
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Just 10 days ago, President Joe Biden hailed his country’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout as making “incredible progress,” and on Monday, Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the U.K.’s aggressive vaccine program had already saved more than 10,000 people. “The science is clear,” he said. “Vaccines save lives.”

But that is not the whole story.

Four months into their respective mass vaccination programs, the U.S. and Britain now offer proof of another “science is clear” fact: Lockdowns save lives, too.

The two trading powers have vaccinated almost exactly the same percentage of people, with 59 out of every 100 people in the U.S. receiving at least one dose, as of Friday, while across the Atlantic, about 61 out of every 100 people in Britain has received at least one dose, according to Berenberg, the German investment bank, citing Oxford University’s Our World in Data. (Globally, just 11 out of 100 people have received at least one dose.)

But beyond that, there are some striking differences between the U.S. and Britain.

Britain’s coronavirus cases have plunged in recent weeks, while U.S. cases have crept up—so that now, people in the U.S. are dying of COVID-19 at about three times the rate of people in Britain.

Why? Analysts see one obvious answer: lockdowns.

“The U.S. has paid the price for its relaxed approach to lockdowns,” says Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg Bank, by phone from Berlin on Friday.

Britain imposed a strict nationwide lockdown in January, as the U.K. variant sent COVID-19 cases rocketing. The country began a phased reopening only this week.

Contrast that with the U.S., where throughout the pandemic cities and states have imposed a hodgepodge of restrictions—often ignored—as politicians (including former President Donald Trump) argued that the economic and human toll from lockdowns outweighed the lives that could be saved. Scientists argued the opposite.

Judging from the U.S. and U.K., the scientists seem to have won out. “We have always had these data,” Schmieding says. “But it has become much more apparent in the case numbers and the death numbers. In the U.S., they are much higher.”

Even so, vaccines are clearly bringing down COVID-19 infection rates—by a lot. The U.S. daily new cases have dropped from 77.7 per 100,000 people on Jan. 11, shortly before Biden’s inauguration, to 21.4 on Thursday, according to Berenberg. But in the U.K., the plunge in coronavirus cases has been far steeper, from 90 per 100,000 in January, to a tiny 2.4 new cases a day now. “The U.K. seems to have turned the corner, hopefully for good,” says the report.

The EU to thank?

But while British officials have trumpeted the U.K.’s far better performance in vaccinating people than the European Union (which it left under Brexit), Berenberg’s Schmieding says it has the EU—not itself—to thank for the huge success of its vaccination program.

“We are looking at the generosity of the EU to export one-half of their vaccine output,” Schmieding says. “The U.K. imported about 60% of its vaccine. It has been saved by the EU. The key difference is we, the EU, are exporting, but the U.K. and the U.S. are not. It is a value judgment whether you think that is a failure or generosity.”

By contrast, the EU’s disastrously slow vaccine rollout, begun in late December, has now left its 27 nations in far worse shape than the U.S. and Britain. The third wave of COVID-19 cases has surged in recent weeks in the EU, just as cases have dropped across the English Channel in Britain. “Major parts of the eurozone remain in the thrall of the new wave of the pandemic,” says the Berenberg report.

Unpacking what has gone wrong has become an art form among economists and politicians, as they try to determine how much government mismanagement of vaccine campaigns is to blame, and how much the waves of infection are simply a result of COVID-19’s new mutations.

After months of the EU’s snail’s pace of vaccinations, the eurozone—the 19 EU countries that use the euro—has markedly accelerated this month. In France, for example, mass vaccination sites and millions of new doses have driven a big increase in jabs. “If there is no shortage of supply, France will achieve the goal of having vaccinated 30 million people by mid-June,” Berenberg says in its report.

But months after the first vaccinations, there is a sobering lesson: Don’t celebrate quite yet, as economies rebound, and offices and restaurants begin to reopen. New variants and doubts about some vaccines—which temporarily halted the use of the [hotlink]AstraZeneca[/hotlink] vaccine last month and this month, and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine this week—could send cases rising again.

New coronavirus variants have driven sharp increases in COVID-19 rates in Brazil, Turkey, and India, says the Berenberg report. In Brazil, the percentage of patients under age 45 who are dying from the coronavirus has shot up to 38%, from just 13% during the pandemic’s first wave a year ago, thanks to the Brazilian variant of the coronavirus.

“Fortunately, Brazil is a special case among the world’s major economies,” said the Berenberg report. “But it is a reminder that the health situation can deteriorate fast.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com