The European Commission has renewed threats to block exports of AstraZeneca vaccines, a move that has intensified the vaccine war between Britain and the European Union and has divided EU countries.
Over the weekend, EC president Ursula von der Leyen strongly hinted that the EC is ready to use its emergency powers if AstraZeneca keeps failing to meet its delivery obligations to the EU. The pharmaceutical giant, which developed the vaccine with Oxford University, is expected to deliver just 30 million doses in the first quarter; the original target was 90 million.
“We have the option of banning a planned export,” Ms. von der Leyen told the German newspaper company Funke Mediengruppe. “That’s the message to AstraZeneca. You will fulfill your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries.”
She was doubling down on a similar threat she made last week, when she warned that “all options are on the table – we are in the crisis of the century.”
In early March, Italy held back the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses, the first EU country to do so.
Banning AstraZeneca vaccine exports, and possibly those of other manufacturers, would have global consequences, as many countries in the developed and developing world buy EU-made vaccines or the ingredients that go into them.
According to Bloomberg data, by mid-March the EU had exported about 42 million doses of approved vaccine products. The U.K., Canada, Japan and Mexico were by far the top recipients. (So far, it appears that none of the AstraZeneca-developed vaccine doses used in Canada was made in the EU; the initial batch of 500,000 was actually made under licence by the Serum Institute of India. And last week, the United States agreed to ship 1.5 million surplus AstraZeneca doses to Canada.)
An EU export ban would hurt Britain the most. The EU has sent millions of doses to the U.K. but has received none in return, raising tensions between the two sides. The Belgian-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the main product sent to Britain, though there is no suggestion so far that the EC would ban its export.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to call EU leaders this week to urge them to kill the idea of banning vaccine exports. Britain has denied hoarding vaccines and fears that an EU export ban would trigger vaccine nationalism around the globe. On Sunday, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that trying to “build walls around this would damage both the EU citizens and the United Kingdom.”
On Monday, The Times of London reported that Britain is prepared to share Dutch-made AstraZeneca vaccine ingredients with the EU. Those ingredients, made at the Halix factory in Leiden, were destined for Britain and face an export ban if the EC makes good on its threat.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden and Poland are all lobbying for a settlement over the Halix vaccine ingredients so a full-blown vaccine war between the EU and Britain can be avoided.
In Britain and elsewhere, Ms. von der Leyen’s threat is widely seen as a desperate effort to boost supplies after a botched vaccination rollout that saw the EC sign contracts for hundreds of millions of vaccine doses months after Britain did. By Monday, the EU had administered the first of two doses to just 8.7 per cent of its population. Britain’s equivalent vaccination rate was 41 per cent, Israel’s 57 per cent and America’s 24 per cent.
The EU’s slow vaccination campaign has helped keep infection and death rates stubbornly high. Several countries, including Italy, France and Germany, have responded by tightening pandemic restrictions or implementing new local and regional lockdowns, even as Britain is preparing to ease restrictions.
With vaccines in short supply across the EU, some governments are considering using the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Slovakia and Hungary have issued emergency approvals for the product, even though it has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency. The EMA has begun a “rolling review” of the Russian jab but has not indicated a potential approval date, and Russia wants to produce vaccines in Italy.
But on Sunday, Russia’s EU vaccine ambitions were dealt a blow when Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal markets commissioner, told France’s TF1 television that the EU has “absolutely no need of Sputnik V” because there should be ample vaccine capacity by the summer.
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