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Somali Health Minister Fawziya Abikar Nur smiles after receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine under the COVAX scheme at the Martini Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, March 16, 2021.

FEISAL OMAR/Reuters

Britain and the European Union have escalated their dispute over supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine just as the World Health Organization encouraged countries to keep using the jab in their immunization programs while concerns about blood clots are investigated.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen took aim at Britain on Wednesday for not exporting doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU to help make up for a shortfall of supply in Europe.

AstraZeneca was supposed to deliver 90 million doses to the EU by the end of March but the company has said that it will only be able to supply 30 million because of production problems at its European plants. EU officials want AstraZeneca to redirect doses from its two British plants, which have not faced the same production issues.

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The company and the British government have argued that the British production is part of a separate contract, but EU officials say AstraZeneca’s British facilities were obliged to supply vaccine to the bloc.

Ms. von der Leyen said the EU will consider banning all vaccine exports to Britain unless the British government and AstraZeneca change course. She added that Britain has received roughly 10 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from plants in Belgium, but no AstraZeneca vaccine made in Britain has been shipped to the EU.

“We are still waiting for doses to come from the U.K., so this is an invitation to show us that there are also doses from the U.K. coming to the European Union,” Ms. von de Leyen said during a press conference in Brussels. “Open roads run in both directions.”

She added that the ban could be imposed on other countries that fail to reciprocate vaccine shipments. “I want to be clear on reciprocity. If the situation does not change, we will have to reflect on how to make exports to vaccine-producing countries dependent on their level of openness,” she said.

Ms. von der Leyen has faced criticism over the slow rollout of the EU’s vaccination program, which lags far behind Britain, the United States and several other countries. She has blamed some of the delay on the supply issues with AstraZeneca, but she said on Wednesday that the bloc was on track to vaccinate 70 per cent of adults by the end of the summer.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned the EU not to engage in vaccine nationalism. “Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation,” he said Wednesday. “It is normally what the U.K. and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended Britain’s contract with AstraZeneca, which ensured that Britain received the first 100 million doses. He noted that the British government provided funding to develop the vaccine at the University of Oxford and manufacture it in Britain. “This is a U.K.-funded, U.K.-delivered vaccine,” he told a press conference Wednesday. “We fully expect [the contract] to be delivered on.”

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The dispute came as the WHO sought to ease concerns about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine. More than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, have stopped using it amid reports that 37 people developed blood clots after being vaccinated.

On Wednesday, the WHO urged countries to continue administering the jab. “At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue,” the organization said in a statement.

The agency said its committee on vaccine safety was assessing the blood-clot cases but it added that these events “are known to occur frequently.”

The European Medicines Agency is conducting a similar review and is expected to announce its findings on Thursday. The EMA’s executive director, Emer Cooke, said on Tuesday that scientists had yet to find any connection between blood clots and the AstraZeneca vaccine. Health Canada and Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have come to similar conclusions.

Europe's medicines watchdog on Tuesday said the benefits of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risks after several countries halted its use due to concerns about blood clots. Reuters

A report released Tuesday by Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institute, a branch of the country’s medical regulator, provided details about why the suspension was recommended. The institute said that shortly after vaccination, seven people in Germany developed a rare type of clotting in a vein in the brain, a condition known as cerebral venous thrombosis or CVT. Three of the seven died.

Researchers said that roughly 1.6 million Germans had been inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine and that based on statistical modelling only one case of CVT should have been expected. Given the higher number of cases, a link to the vaccine “was not implausible,” they added.

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Despite the report, health regulators in Britain said the vaccine should still be used. “The benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalization and death, far outweigh the risks of side effects,” said Phil Bryan, the head of vaccines safety at the MHRA.

“It is still the case that it has not been confirmed the reported blood clots were caused by the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine. Blood clots can occur naturally and are not uncommon.”

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