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16th Apr 2024

EU sharpens vaccine export tool, amid third wave

  • Vaccine deliveries have been sluggish to the EU in the first months of the year due to delays from AstraZeneca, EU officials said (Photo: European Commission)

The EU Commission on Wednesday (24 March) proposed to sharpen its rules on the export of Covid-19 vaccines, and stop shipping to countries with higher inoculation rates - as well as those that do not send back doses or raw materials to the bloc.

The move could escalate tensions with manufacturers and EU allies, as Europe battles with a rising third wave of infections, stricter lockdowns, and sluggish vaccine roll-out due to slow deliveries from pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.

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The EU introduced the tool in January, making companies request authorisation from EU countries to be able to export.

Countries have so far stopped only one export - of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia - and approved 381 export requests.

According to the proposal, governments and the commission could now take into account if the destination country, if it has a production capacity of its own, or restricts exports of vaccines or raw materials.

They should also consider the epidemiological situation in the destination country, the vaccination rate, and the availability of Covid-19 vaccines there.

The new proposed rules do not set a general, detailed benchmark, and export requests will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The measures will stay in place until at least the end of June.

"The most important thing at this crucial moment is to stabilise and accelerate the delivery of vaccines," commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters.

"Despite the fact that EU is one of the global hotspots of the pandemic, the EU is also the largest exporter of vaccines," he added.

UK in spotlight

While the commission says that the refined tool is not addressed at any country, the UK seems to be targeted - as it has received 10m vaccines since January from the EU but has not exported back.

EU officials argue that while the UK does not have an explicit export ban, it has a de facto ban through its contract with AstraZeneca that require the firm to supply British markets first.

But EU states want to share the pain of delayed AstraZeneca deliveries fairly with the UK.

"Europe should be an open place for vaccine exports, but there should be a fair share for Europeans too," said the EU official.

The export authorisation would also be extended to 17 countries neighbouring the EU, including Israel, Norway, and Switzerland, that have been previously exempted, to avoid any risk of circumventing tougher export rules.

"Exports should take place in an environment where things come back," said an EU official.

A UK government spokesperson said London will continue to work with the EU to "deliver the vaccine rollout". "We are all fighting the same pandemic. Vaccines are an international operation," the spokesperson said.

Later on Wednesday, the UK and the EU have said in a joint statement that they wanted to "create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all".

AstraZeneca's missing millions

EU officials said export restrictions could also kick in if companies do not respect quarterly contracts.

Officials have been criticising AstraZeneca, which has lagged behind delivering under its EU contract, and its UK contract.

"AstraZeneca is very far away form their contractual commitments. They have committed to deliver 120m to the EU in the first quarter of the year, they are promising to be able to deliver 30m, but they are not even close to this figure as of today," Dombrovskis said.

"It is clear in the EU we also need to ensure vaccination of our population, and there - in a sense - we are behind schedule" he added.

Previously, Pfizer/BioNTech, which has delivered under its EU contract, expressed concern over tougher export rules - which could also affect them.

"We have been clear with all stakeholders that the free movement of goods and supply across borders is absolutely critical to Pfizer and the patients we serve," a Pfizer spokesman said last week.

Win-win or lose-lose?

The proposal will be discussed by EU leaders at their online meeting on Thursday, but they will not decide on it yet, senior EU officials said.

EU member states are divided over the proposal, with France, Germany and Italy broadly supporting the tighter export curbs, and countries including the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland are more cautious about export bans to countries, specifically Britain.

"We don't want to interfere with global supply chains, we are looking for win-wins ... I hope this is a stick which will not have to be used, because it might turn out to be a lose-lose," said an EU diplomat.

However, the commission's proposal will come into force unless a "qualified majority' of EU members oppose it, which is very unlikely.

Vaccine export 'ban' row heats up ahead of EU summit

"This is not about banning vaccine exports, this is about making sure that companies deliver on their commitments to the member states and the EU that are inscribed in contracts," commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

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