EU threat of tougher vaccine export controls backed by heavyweight governments

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BRUSSELS – The European Commission’s threat to block exports of Covid-19 vaccines to countries with higher vaccination rates that are not reciprocating, including Britain, won backing from Germany, France and Italy, EU officials and diplomats said.

The head of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, threatened on Wednesday (March 17) to ban exports of vaccines to safeguard scarce doses for its own citizens facing a third wave of the pandemic.

At a meeting of EU diplomats that took place shortly after Ms von der Leyen’s warning, Germany, Italy, France and Denmark supported the commission’s stance on a tougher application of export controls, three diplomats and officials who attended the meeting or were briefed about it, said.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland were more cautious, two of the officials said, adding a discussion on the matter will be held at a summit of EU leaders next week.

“It’s all stemming from a growing frustration with AstraZeneca and being under increased pressure to do something about it. We don’t have enough vaccines, we export like crazy without getting anything,” said one of the diplomats who participated in the discussions.

A second diplomat, briefed on the talks, confirmed the main reason for the tougher stance was AstraZeneca’s under-delivery to the EU.

The Anglo-Swedish company said last week it aimed to deliver to the EU 100 million doses of its vaccine by the end of June, instead of 300 million envisaged under the EU contract, citing production problems and export restrictions.

The EU, whose vaccination campaign has been slowed down by delays in deliveries and health scares, has said it exported more than 10 million vaccines to Britain since Jan 30, and more before, but got none back, despite the fact that two plants producing AstraZeneca shots in the UK are listed as suppliers in the company’s contract with the EU.

EU officials have said that AstraZeneca told them it cannot export vaccines made in British factories because it has a supply contract with Britain that prioritises the UK market.

A first shipment to Australia of AstraZeneca vaccines was blocked earlier in March by Italy, in agreement with the EU Commission. All other requests have so far been approved for a total of over 40 million shots exported to dozens of countries since Jan 30.

One of the diplomats and a fourth EU official said the move was mainly a warning to Britain, but also concerned countries that were peddling vaccines to tourists.

While they did not name any of these countries, there have been reports of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offering shots to foreigners willing to get residency and set up a company there.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” said the EU official.

The threat was also directed at the United States, which has so far banned the export of vaccines to the EU, the official said, but that was mitigated by the fact that the bloc depends on US substances, the exports of which was not blocked.

The official said the EU was also worried about the supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccines from the US as Washington was prioritising Americans before allowing exports.

The US company produces some of its shots in the Netherlands, but vaccines need to be shipped to the US to be bottled there under the supply contract J&J signed with the EU.

The EU’s vaccination rollout has been slow compared to other wealthy nations, with the UK, US and UAE being far ahead, thanks in part to vaccines imported from the EU.

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