U.K.’s Johnson Says EU Doesn’t Want Vaccine ‘Blockades’
(Bloomberg) -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the European Union doesn’t want to launch a vaccine battle, despite the bloc warning it is set to restrict exports of coronavirus shots to the U.K.
In an attempt to defuse the tensions with Brussels, Johnson said avoiding blockades of vaccine supplies is vital because immunization programs require countries to work together.
“I’m reassured by talking to EU partners over the last few months that they don’t want to see blockades,” Johnson said in a pooled interview with broadcasters Monday. “That’s very, very important.”
He was speaking after the EU set out restrictions aimed at companies it says haven’t met delivery obligations to the bloc. The vaccine tension risks putting a further dent in relations with London already strained by Brexit, trade and tensions over Northern Ireland.
The bloc will likely reject authorizations to export AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccines and their ingredients to the U.K. until the drugmaker fulfills its contracts, according to a senior European official, who asked not to be named because the decisions are under consideration. A production plant in the Netherlands and one in Belgium produce ingredients for the Astra shot.
The EU says the issue is one of reciprocity. The U.K. is the largest recipient of doses made in the EU, receiving 10 million of 42 million shots exported by the bloc so far.
“It’s about making sure that if we’re exporting vaccines to countries that are also producing vaccines, that we also receive vaccines or products that are necessary for the production of vaccines,” said European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer.
Despite the slow rollout of vaccines in the EU, not all governments are in favor of export controls. Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said Monday that they would be a “retrogade step.”
But he also noted that Britain must face the situation, “which is that AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in Europe had been facilitated to go to Britain, that needs to be acknowledged by the U.K. and reciprocated to some degree.”
Meanwhile, with virus cases on the rise in the EU, governments there have been forced to implement fresh lockdowns. Johnson warned that the U.K. may not escape the latest surge.
“People in this country should be under no illusions that previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, it washes up on our shores as well,” he said. The U.K. is mulling next steps for easing restrictions.
Ahead of an EU leaders’ meeting later this week, Johnson has been discussing the vaccine issue with his counterparts, including Dutch premier Mark Rutte and Belgium’s Alexander De Croo, a person familiar with the matter said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Johnson on Sunday. While her spokeswoman Martina Fietz said Merkel seemed eager to bring calm, she also noted that Germany “supports attempts by the EU commission to make sure that the member states will be supplied with vaccines according to reached agreements.”
Meanwhile, Pfizer Inc. has warned that the free movement of supplies between the U.K. and the EU is critical to the production of its own vaccine. Manufacturing of lipids -- the fatty substance used to deliver the genetic material at the heart of the vaccine Pfizer makes with its German partner BioNTech SE -- takes place at a secret location in the U.K. before shipping to the EU where the shots are completed.
Astra’s vaccine has been at the center of the EU’s vaccination problems since first cutting delivery targets because of a production problem. Most recently, its shot was temporarily suspended in much of Europe over blood-clot fears.
While the EU drug regulator backed the vaccine last week, and U.S. trial results published Monday said there were no safety concerns, public trust in the shot has plummeted in Europe. Such public concern could be further bad news for the EU inoculation campaign.
The EU isn’t alone in having supply issues. The U.K. is facing a “significant” four-week cut to the supply of Covid-19 vaccines from late March. A delayed shipment of the Astra vaccine from India and a batch requiring re-testing are behind the disruption.
Edward Lister, one of Johnson’s closest advisers, is in India this week following the delay of Astra doses earmarked for the U.K. from the country’s Serum Institute. Johnson’s office said it was a pre-planned trip ahead of the premier visiting India next month rather than an attempt to address shortages.
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