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8th May 2021

EU-UK vaccine 'nationalism' spat intensifies

  • One-third of vaccines produced in the EU last month were exported to the UK (Photo: Michael Bird)

British prime minister Boris Johnson has rejected claims from the European Council president Charles Michel - who this week accused the UK of imposing a ban on vaccine exports.

"Let me be clear: we have not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components," Johnson told parliament on Wednesday (10 March).

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"This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms," he added.

The new row between the EU and the UK broke out on Tuesday, after Michel accused London and Washington of blocking vaccine exports - claiming his position was based on "facts".

Following a wave of criticism from UK authorities, Michel said that he was "glad" if the British reaction led to more transparency, arguing that there were "different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines".

The EU deputy ambassador to the UK, Nicole Mannion, had a meeting on Wednesday with British foreign office permanent under-secretary Philip Barton, an EU official said, to discuss the latest vaccine clash.

The UK did not accredit the EU representative as an ambassador, the source also said, adding that this had complicated matters to a certain extent.

While Britain has not introduced an official export ban, it effectively blocks exports to third countries by using a UK-first clause in its contract with AstraZeneca, the only company producing Covid-19 vaccines in Britain, Reuters reported.

As of Wednesday, the UK has given the first jab to some 35 percent of its population, compared to 9.6 percent across the EU, according to data published by Our World in Data.

8m doses to UK from EU

The EU exported 25 million doses of vaccines (produced in the bloc) to 31 countries last month, with Britain and Canada as the largest recipients, according to a document seen by EUobserver.

A total of 24,746,787 vaccines were produced in the EU between 1 February and 1 March, of which about one-third (some eight million) were shipped to the UK.

Meanwhile, the EU also exported 651,000 vaccines to the US last month, where there is a temporary export ban of critical raw materials is in place.

This tug-of-war represents the second dispute between the EU and the UK over vaccine supplies this year, a few months after Britain officially left the EU.

In January, a stand-off with vaccine-manufacturer AstraZeneca triggered an export control mechanism on vaccines produced in EU countries - a move seen as "vaccine nationalism" in the international community.

Italy used this scheme for the first time last week to blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine due to go to Australia.

4m extra doses

Meanwhile, the European Commission has secured four million additional doses of BioNtech/Pfizer vaccines "to tackle coronavirus hotspots and facilitate free movement".

"This will help member states in their efforts to keep the spread of new variants under control. Through their targeted use where they are most needed, in particular in border regions, these doses will also help ensure or restore free movement of goods and people," said EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

EU countries will have to assess their epidemiological situation, considering the spread of variants, to identify hotspots where the numbers of infections and hospitalisations are rising steeply.

Over the past weeks, regions such as Tyrol in Austria, Nice and Moselle in France, Bolzano in Italy and some parts of Bavaria and Saxony in Germany, among others, have seen a sharp increase in the number of cases.

Member states will be responsible for placing their orders directly with the company, based on pro-rata to their population.

These four million extra doses will be delivered before the end of March.

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