EU Tightens Curbs on Vaccine Exports as Infection Rates Increase
(Bloomberg) -- The European Union unveiled plans to extend its powers to block Covid vaccine exports, prompting criticism from the rest of the world, as the discovery of millions of doses at a plant near Rome added to confusion over the bloc’s rollout.
Amid escalating tension with allies and global manufacturers, the EU is demanding that countries that receive doses from the bloc also allow shots to be sent in the other direction. There are still no automatic bans however, and officials will take into account a nation’s vaccination rate and pandemic situation when deciding whether to approve shipments.
The move coincides with a darkening outlook in Europe as the infection rate climbs and governments face pressure over their failure to to vaccinate citizens as quickly as the U.S. and U.K. The tighter rules will end exemptions for somce countries with close ties to the EU because officials are worried that others will exploit those loopholes to gain access to shots.
Canada’s government described the EU’s proposals as “concerning,” with an official later adding that it had no reason to believe shipments there would be impacted. Australia Health Minister Greg Hunt said his nation had received less than a fifth of the 3.8 million doses it contracted from AstraZeneca Plc’s European operations. Singapore also said it was concerned about very tight vaccine supplies.
But the new rules -- unveiled three months to the day after the EU concluded a trade deal with the U.K. -- could hit Britain most severely. The U.K. has received 11 million of the 45 million doses shipped out of the EU so far, making it by far the biggest beneficiary of the bloc’s vaccines. The EU has received no shots from the U.K.
U.K. officials are currently in Brussels negotiating with the European Commission over how to divide up stock from an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands after a spat over why the U.K. received vaccines while the company didn’t meet its commitments to the EU. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters in London that all countries are “fighting the same pandemic” and his government will “continue to work with our European partners.”
The EU says that export requests will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
It emerged on Wednesday that Italian police carried out inspections at a pharmaceuticals plant near Rome on Saturday where 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been held. The European Commission asked Prime Minister Mario Draghi to verify the stock at the plant, an Italian official said.
Astra said in a statement that the shots in Italy were being held for quality control. It said that 13 million doses were destined for Covax, a program that channels shots to developing countries, and the rest were for Europe.
Astra has been at the center of the vaccine controversy after repeatedly cutting the number of shots it plans to deliver to the EU in the first quarter. The company’s latest projection is for 30 million doses, compared with an initial commitment to around 120 million, and Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said that Astra is still far from meeting those much reduced targets.
Leaders will have a chance to take stock of the situation during a videoconference summit on Thursday. They will discuss the bloc’s latest powers and will say the “situation remains serious” and that “restrictions, including non-essential travel, must therefore be upheld,” according to an EU document seen by Bloomberg.
Some EU governments remain wary about the export restrictions, which were drawn up by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. A German official said that Berlin doesn’t want an EU export ban, while the Netherlands sounded a note of skepticism too.
“We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “The EU is the only major Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development producer that continues to export vaccines at large scale to dozens of countries, but open roads should run in both directions.”
The prospect of the EU blocking shipments to the U.K. is adding drama to an increasingly fraught relationship. As well as disagreements over vaccines, the U.K. has refused to grant full rights to the bloc’s ambassador in London while the EU is still smarting from the U.K.’s threat -- later withdrawn -- to break international law last year and rewrite the Brexit agreement.
According to the document, vaccine manufacturers have exported “large quantities” to “certain countries without production capacity, but which have a higher vaccination rate” than the EU, or where the current rate of Covid infections isn’t as high. Exports to these countries may “threaten the security of supply” the legislation says.
It adds that manufacturers have exported to countries that “have a large production capacity of their own” yet “those countries restrict their own exports” to the EU.
In an effort to get around claims by some governments -- notably the U.K. -- that they don’t have formal export restrictions, the legislation makes clear that these can come about “either by law or through contractual or other arrangements concluded with vaccine manufacturers.”
While a ban on exports to those countries won’t be automatic, “member states should refuse export authorizations accordingly,” the draft said.
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