BRUSSELS, March 24, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – The EU on Wednesday tightened its rules on Covid-19 vaccine exports, making authorisations contingent on destination countries behaving fairly in return — particularly vaccine-producing ones.
The action came as Brussels wrangled with UK-based vaccine producer AstraZeneca over a supply shortfall and drew a sharp warning from Britain against “arbitrary blockades”.
Officials said the European Commission would now weigh how needy countries are, in terms of infection rates and how many vaccines they have, as well as how readily they export doses to the EU.
“Open roads should run in both directions,” commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.
“This is why the European Commission will introduce the principles of reciprocity and proportionality into the EU’s existing authorisation mechanism,” she said, referring to a rule introduced in February.
“We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens. Every day counts,” she added, warning that Europe was facing a third wave of infections.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who fears the new measure will cut off EU vaccine exports to Britain, responded with a warning.
“I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very considerable,” he told senior lawmakers in the British parliament.
“I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade, or interruption of supply chains, that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.”
EU officials were adamant the scheme is not an “export ban” and does not target any country in particular — though they called out AstraZeneca for falling far short on its deliveries to Europe.
AstraZeneca is “not even close” to delivering 30 million doses promised in the first three months of this year — which were already well below the 120 million they had been under contract to supply — commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference.
The commission early this month backed Italy in using the mechanism to ban a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses meant for Australia.
It was the only time so far a ban has been applied, with 380 other export requests being approved — including ones sending 11 million doses to Britain.
It emerged Wednesday that Italian inspectors had located 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a bottling plant in Anagni, but the company insisted they were for the EU and an EU-approved programme for poor countries.
– Britain sees threat –
Britain sees the reinforced export authorisation scheme as a threat to its vaccination programme, which had been powering ahead thanks to smooth AstraZeneca deliveries.
Johnson has been speaking to EU leaders and the commission in recent days to try to head off any bans on shipments from the EU of doses of the AstraZeneca or BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines.
Under the revised mechanism, a company running a vaccine plant in an EU country is required to apply for export authorisation. The EU country and the commission decide jointly whether or not to grant approval.
Any blocked doses are not seized by the EU, and “it’s of course for a company itself to comment what its intentions are” regarding that shipment, Dombrovskis said.
The added scrutiny, however, puts deliberate pressure on companies to factor in Europe’s needs compared to the destination country before applying for export approval.
“Some countries have secured already a lot of vaccines, they have already secured a vaccination rate which is much, much higher than in the European Union,” one EU official noted.
The EU — a vaccine-producing powerhouse — stands out for continuing to allow exports while other countries with big production bases, such as Britain and the United States, use legislation or commercial contracts to keep doses for their populations only, officials said.
EU officials said they were confident EU leaders would support the stepped-up measures when they held a virtual summit on Thursday, and that the mechanism was compliant with World Trade Organization rules.
But the summit is not expected to make any formal decision to back or oppose the move.