EU Picks an Astra Vaccine Fight With U.K. Over Missing Supplies

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to withhold vaccine exports to the U.K., reopening a dispute with the British government that has dramatically increased tensions between the EU and its former member.

EU Picks an Astra Vaccine Fight With U.K. Over Missing Supplies

As the European Union struggles to quicken the pace of its stuttering Covid vaccination program, von der Leyen raised the prospect of pulling an emergency trigger in the bloc’s treaty -- used previously only during the oil crisis of the 1970s -- to allow authorities to effectively seize control of production and distribution.

She said the EU will consider blocking supplies to countries that aren’t reciprocating or that already have high vaccination rates, singling out the U.K. as the No. 1 importer of shots.

“All options are on the table, we are in the crisis of the century,” von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “I am not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Awaiting the EMA

In London, the U.K. government said it expected the EU to “stand by” its previous promises to not block vaccine exports. “We are all dependent on global supply chains and putting in place restrictions endangers global efforts to fight the virus,” the British prime minister’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, said on a call with reporters.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told reporters that the U.K. expects its contractual obligations to be fulfilled.

The threat comes as the bloc’s vaccine rollout is in a state of chaos. A number of countries suspended the use of AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine to examine side effects even though the EU’s drugs regulator has repeatedly said the benefits of the shot outweigh risks.

The World Health Organization reiterated its view that the vaccine should continue to be administered ahead of a highly anticipated review from the European Medicines Agency on Thursday. France has said it would follow the EMA’s advice.

EU Picks an Astra Vaccine Fight With U.K. Over Missing Supplies

As Britain’s vaccination campaign continues to outstrip Europe’s, with almost four times the rate of doses administered, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’s getting his coronavirus vaccination “very shortly” -- and it “will certainly be Oxford-AstraZeneca I’ll be having.” The U.K. has insisted the Astra shot is safe and effective and urged the public to take it.

So far, the U.K. has administered 26.5 million doses, with 37% of its population having received at least one shot, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Earlier, U.K. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told LBC Radio that comments from some politicians in Europe about the safety of the vaccine were “very, very unhelpful.”

Safety Concerns

The EU has now administered 11 doses per 100 people, compared to 33 doses in the U.S. and 39 doses in the U.K., according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. Despite the delays, the bloc boosted the number of doses it expects to get in the second quarter to 360 million.

The EU hinted at banning exports to the U.K. in January but that prospect faded after von der Leyen suggested she had received assurances from Johnson that Astra supplies to Europe wouldn’t be restricted. The push to make exports contingent on reciprocity comes after the EU has sent 41 million doses to 33 nations.

“We have observed that in the last six weeks, 10 million doses have been exported to the U.K.,” she said. “If the situation doesn’t change, we will have to reflect on how to make exports to vaccine-producing countries dependent on their level of openness.”

Von der Leyen said that EU leaders should consider additional measures to secure vaccine supplies when they meet next week, including the potential use of emergency legal powers to effectively seize control of production and distribution.

‘Some Explaining’

Article 122 of the EU treaty allows the introduction of emergency measures when “severe difficulties arise in the supply of certain products.”

“It takes some explaining because the world is watching,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters, adding that the EU announcement took his government by surprise. “All of us -- including with our European friends -- have been saying throughout the pandemic that you’d be wrong to curtail or interfere with lawfully contracted supply.”

European Council President Charles Michel had touted the possibility of invoking Article 122 in January. An official familiar with the matter said then that the measures could help to get the bloc’s vaccination program back on track.

“Vaccine production and vaccine deliveries in the EU must have a priority and I also want to discuss this whole picture with the heads of state and government,” von der Leyen said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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