In an escalating dispute with the United Kingdom and vaccine maker AstraZeneca, European leaders said AstraZeneca must deliver on its supply contracts to the European Union before it exports doses to other countries.
(CN) — Faced with a third wave of coronavirus infections and a crisis over vaccine shortages, European leaders on Thursday said they were prepared to ban the export of vaccines.
The threat of an export ban was aimed primarily at vaccine maker AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company at the center of an intensifying feud between the European Union and the United Kingdom over the delivery of vaccines.
AstraZeneca is accused of favoring the U.K. over the EU by not fulfilling its contract to deliver doses to the EU while keeping its supply to Britain on track. This disparity is one reason Britain has sped ahead of the EU in its mass vaccination, leaving Europeans upset both with the UK and its own leaders.
The vaccine shortage in Europe is becoming an alarming reality as the continent faces a deadly third wave of the pandemic with only a small portion of its population inoculated.
Adding to the volatile mix of politics and cross-channel animosities is Britain’s recent exit from the EU and the fact that this third wave of infections in Europe is caused by a new coronavirus strain that first emerged in southern England late last year at a time when Britain was seen as failing to adequately suppress the virus.
Meeting by video conference on Thursday to avoid a face-to-face summit as Europe dreads a third wave, EU leaders presented plans to stop vaccine makers from exporting their products outside the bloc before they fulfill their contractual obligations within the EU.
This mechanism is clearly aimed at AstraZeneca and its vaccine-making facilities in Europe. The company also runs facilities in Britain. About 10 million doses manufactured in the EU have been sent to the U.K.
“We want to make sure that Europe gets its fair share of vaccines,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a news conference late Thursday at the end of the meeting.
“Companies have to honor their contract to the European Union before they export to other regions in the world,” she said. “This is of course the case with AstraZeneca.”
She said the company must catch up and honor the contract it has with the EU “before it can engage again in exporting vaccines.”
AstraZeneca has told the EU that it will only be able to deliver 70 million doses instead of the 180 million doses under contract by the end of June, Von der Leyen said.
She said the export ban is meant to stop companies from putting at risk the “security of supply” in the EU.
It remains uncertain if the EU will carry out its threat.
After the meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was ready to stop exports.
“I support the fact that we must block all exports for as long as some drug companies don’t respect their commitments with Europeans,” Macron said. “It’s the end of naivety.”
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel was less adamant.
“In relation to Britain, we want a win-win situation, we want to act sensibly politically,” she said, according to news reports.
The export ban has been criticized both inside and outside the EU, with critics warning that it will spark a “vaccine war” with Britain and cause disruptions to the delivery of vaccines around the globe. Britain faces seeing its speedy vaccination program slowing if the export ban is carried out.
But Von der Leyen shot back on Thursday by pointing out the EU is the world’s top vaccine exporter, supplying vaccines to 33 countries outside the EU.
“Overall, up to date, the total number of exports from the European Union has risen to 77 million doses,” she said. “That shows that Europe is the region that exports the most vaccines worldwide.”
By contrast, she charged Britain has not exported any vaccines. The U.K. government is coming under pressure to respond to her assertion.
“I have no knowledge so far of U.K. exports, perhaps I’m mistaken and waiting for that transparency,” she said. “The same goes for many other regions of the world.”
She also alluded to the United States’ ability to stop exports through its 70-year-old Defense Production Act, which allows the U.S. to prioritize domestic orders of vaccines. The U.S. too has been accused of keeping its vaccines for itself, a move that helped it jump ahead in its drive to vaccinate its population. Both the U.K. and the U.S. have been praised for their speedy approval of vaccines on an emergency use basis and for quickly signing deals with vaccine makers.
By contrast, the EU took a more cautious approach to vaccine approvals and was slower to sign deals, in part because it was buying vaccines on behalf of 27 member states. EU leaders decided to jointly buy vaccines, a move meant to defuse the danger that within the bloc, richer and bigger countries would jump ahead of poorer member states, sowing further discord within a political union that is suffering growing pains.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the EU has sought to lead global vaccination efforts and it helped create an initiative with the World Health Organization to deliver vaccines globally. At the time, the Trump administration turned its back on the global vaccination drive, though British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a vocal supporter.
The U.K. and other rich nations are accused more generally of hoarding the global supply of vaccines to the detriment of the rest of the world. Health experts warn that the pandemic will be prolonged unless vulnerable populations around the world — and eventually a majority of people — are vaccinated.
Von der Leyen said the EU will continue exporting vaccines globally to “protect humanitarian and health workers around the world.”
Although the EU faces vaccine shortages, Von der Leyen said the situation is improving.
“Vaccination is now finally progressing steadily,” she said.
She said 88 million doses have been delivered and 62 million administered in the EU. She said about 4.1% of Europeans have been fully vaccinated with two shots.
She added that wide-scale vaccinations of people over 80 has helped bring down death rates in this latest phase of the pandemic.
“We see the very first effects of having vaccinated most of the over 80 year olds, but overall the situation is of great concern,” she said. “This highlights the importance of a fast and speedy vaccination.”
She said the EU is on track to meet its goal of vaccinating about 70% of its adult population by the end of June. She said that goal will be met thanks to the reliable delivery of vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. She said the EU expects vaccinations to begin soon with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine too.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.