It is very sad to see the row that has broken out between AstraZeneca and the EU about supply issues with the vaccine. Also to read about Macron wading in with ill-considered—and ill-informed—comments about the vaccine. Clearly the situation is complex, and more than just the simple contractual issue of ‘first come, first served’, but the implementation of export controls is absolutely not the way to proceed. If the UK can’t get the Pfizer vaccine from Belgium, then guess what the reaction to making up the EU AstraZeneca shortfall from UK sources is going to be? Already the right-wing press in the UK has gone into overdrive, particularly after the insane decision—fortunately reversed within a few hours—of the EU to impose restrictions on the Irish border. That was the sort of nonsense we’ve come to expect from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
However, I shall relate a story that might throw some light on matters. Following the importation of dunderheads into the highest levels of management of the company for which I had given twenty years of loyal service, I suffered a fairly major demotion. This was some time ago, and both persons having long since left the employ of the company in question, I can say that two of them, my boss, and my boss’s boss, resembled Laurel and Hardy. And the comedic resemblance did not end there … But I digress; the Hardy lookalike was my boss, and talking to him was like chewing a brick. But again, I digress. I was demoted at least two—possibly three—levels of management down, plus a kick sideways, and ended up project managing the design, build, test, and packaging of CCD devices. Needless to say, I knew nothing about CCDs—charge coupled devices—and absolutely nothing about project management.
These were special CCDs for use in space probes, and the one thing about space probes, is that if anything goes wrong you can’t send in a bloke with a spanner to sort things out. Consequently, the devices have to be super-reliable, and the way to ensure that is to make lots of them and test the bejesus out of them. Yet again, I digress. Dumping me, who knew absolutely sod all about either the product or the process, into the management of the production of a device that was to be blasted into space sounds like another insane decision. Fortunately, my new colleagues were splendid and most supportive, and I ended up greatly enjoying the new challenge. If I say so myself, I didn’t make too bad a fist of it.
I was involved in a number of projects, but two stand out. Both were for devices that had a similar resolution. One was for a major European manufacturer, the other was for an American company. The specification for the European device was tortuous in the extreme, and required an enormous amount of testing. The mandatory paper-trail occupied a small library, and the complexity of the device caused a legion of technical problems. In addition to this, there were endless review meetings and telephone conferences involving the customer, the customer’s customer, and the customer’s customer’s customer. Eventually the device was completed, the satellite was launched, and the system is currently working admirably.
The specification for the American device was not onerous, the testing requirements were modest, and the paperwork constituted around one tenth of that needed for the European device. It too was completed, the satellite launched, and the unit functions still, having preformed now for about five times its original design life.
As I have said, there were many technical problems with the European device. On one memorable occasion I visited the customer, along with one of our engineers, to try and sort out some difficulty or another. (I gave a talk on this project to an assembly of our engineers and technicians, prefacing it with the famous legend over Dante's gates of Hell: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”; that comment was greeted with thunderous applause.) One of the senior engineers of our European customer had seen a paper published on our American device—which had been completed and delivered, and was readying for launch—and demanded to know when we had started the project. He was somewhat taken aback to discover that we had started it considerably after commencing his project.
But that is not all. Prior to my ignominious demotion, I spent many years servicing a supply contract to CERN in Geneva for high power switches for their many high-energy particle accelerators. The success of our devices at CERN led to sales to many other accelerator centres all over the world. Naturally, several of these were in the USA, and I made regular visits to Brookhaven (long Island), Fermi Lab (near Chicago), SLAC, (Palo Alto, California) and one or two others that I have forgotten. In visiting their labs, it was impossible not to notice that whereas the various (international) groups at CERN built their equipment positively earthquake proof, the Americans were far more relaxed and laid-back. String and sealing-wax is an exaggeration, but there was definitely a feeling at the American laboratories of ‘best effort’, and ‘just make it work’, rather than write a Library of Congress specification and spend the next three years in a procurement process.
The point I am trying to make, albeit very long-windedly but based on hard-won first-hand experience, is that sometimes the European view gets bogged down in the process, and loses sight of the objective and the imperatives associated with it. One country suffers particularly from this, and I have already mentioned its president.
Italy and Spain suffered Covid infections significantly earlier than the UK—the UK government was criticised for not realizing that the same would happen here a few weeks later, as it did. Why then was the EU so slow off the mark to place vaccine orders? One of the few, the very few things this government has done in the pandemic with exemplary speed, is to get contracts in place for the supply of vaccine—well before it was known whether the vaccine would even work. It seems a pity that our supply should be endangered by export controls put in place after the event.
The B****t argument is lost, but it maddens me to see the ‘I told you sos’ bandying about, and this does not bode well for the future. Poorly done Europe, poorly done ...
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs