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The European Union flag flies in the wind in front of the economic bloc's office in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: The Daily Observer)

EU tightens curbs on vaccine exports amid third infection wave

The European Union flag flies in the wind in front of the economic bloc's office in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: The Daily Observer)

The European Union (EU) extended its power to stop COVID vaccine exports to the rest of the world, setting the stage for an escalation of tensions with allies and manufacturers as it faces a resurgence of cases.

Vials containing 5 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (Photo: Bloomberg)

In strengthening its existing export rules, the bloc will demand that countries that received doses from the EU also allow shots to be sent back. It will also consider a nation’s vaccination rate and pandemic situation when deciding whether to green light shipments. The mechanism won’t be automatic, but will be used on a case-by-case basis.

The proposal comes as the bloc struggles to turn around its sluggish inoculation campaign and as governments from Berlin to Paris battle a rise in infections more than a year since they started. The situation has also been fuelled by a spat with the UK, it’s former member, over vaccine supplies to Britain.

“We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 9, 2020. (Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

“The EU is the only major Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development producer that continues to export vaccines at large scale to dozens of countries, but open roads should run in both directions.”

The move coincides with the coronavirus situation in Europe getting bleaker as governments face pressure over why their citizens aren’t being vaccinated as quickly as those elsewhere and the EU finds itself in disputes with drug makers and other countries faring better.

When leaders hold a summit on Thursday, at which they’ll discuss the bloc’s latest powers, they will say the “situation remains serious” and that “restrictions, including non-essential travel, must therefore be upheld,” according to an EU document seen by Bloomberg.

“The most important thing at this crucial moment is to stabilise and accelerate the delivery of vaccines,” European Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters in Brussels.

European Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis (Photo: European Union

While the legislation isn’t aimed at any specific countries, it’s clear the UK could be one of the biggest targets, adding even more drama to an increasingly fraught relationship three months to the day since the two sides signed a trade deal. As well as disagreements over the export of COVID vaccines, the UK has refused to grant full rights to the bloc’s ambassador in London while the EU is still smarting from the UK’s threat — later withdrawn — to break international law last year and rewrite the Brexit agreement.

The European Commission’s draft legislation published on Wednesday said governments should take into account issues including whether countries are exporting vaccines back to the EU, as well as their epidemiological and vaccine situation. The measures will stay in place until at least the end of June.

According to the document, vaccine manufacturers have exported “large quantities” to “certain countries without production capacity, but which have a higher vaccination rate” than the EU, or where the current rate of COVID infections isn’t as high. Exports to these countries may “threaten the security of supply” the legislation says.

It adds that manufacturers have exported to countries that “have a large production capacity of their own” yet “those countries restrict their own exports” to the EU.

The plan is aimed at companies such as Astrazeneca Plc that aren’t delivering on their commitments and also factors in any possible future difficulties with companies like Pfizer Inc that are meeting their obligations, according to an official familiar with the proposal, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private.

Slow roll-out

In an effort to get around claims by some governments — notably the UK — that they don’t have formal export restrictions, the legislation makes clear that these can come about “either by law or through contractual or other arrangements concluded with vaccine manufacturers.”

The Parliament of the United Kingdom

While a ban on exports to those countries won’t be automatic, “member states should refuse export authorizations accordingly,” the draft said.

The new rules could have consequences for the UK which, having received 11 million of the 45 million doses shipped out of the EU, is by far the biggest recipient of the bloc’s vaccines. It has also vaccinated at a faster rate and has falling infections.

The bloc has administered 13 doses per 100 people, less than a third of what the UK has managed, according to Bloomberg’s Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker. Israel has inoculated more than half of its population.

Neighboring countries will be included in the new directive due to the increased risk of third parties using their special trade privileges to help circumvent the tighter export criteria, according to the document. The rules will include European Free Trade Association countries as well as those in the European Economic Area.

Vaccine ‘greed’

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters in London that all countries are “fighting the same pandemic” and his Government will “continue to work with our European partners.” Later, however, he risked inflaming tensions, telling a group of Conservative MPs in a private meeting via Zoom that the UK’s vaccine success was because of “greed.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his daily COVID-19 press briefing at Downing Street on March 22, 2020, in London, England. (File photo)

The Covernment sought to limit the damage, with cabinet minister Priti Patel taking the rare step of using television interviews to try to explain the premier’s remarks. British officials do not usually comment in public on private discussions, such as the meeting Johnson had with his party.

The EU and UK are currently negotiating how to divide up stock from an Astra plant in the Netherlands due to come on stream in the next few weeks. A European diplomat said there was scope for an agreement on some form of pro-rata distribution based on population size.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Government described the EU’s proposals as “concerning.” And in Australia, Health Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday said his nation had received less than a fifth of the 3.8 million doses it contracted from AstraZeneca’s European operations. Earlier this month, Italy blocked vaccine shipments to Australia using the EU mechanism.