The European Commission on Friday launched a scheme to monitor and in some cases bar exports of vaccines produced in EU plants, amid a row with British-Swedish drugs giant AstraZeneca.
The move was firmly criticised by the World Health Organization and risked stoking conflict with the UK just weeks after London and Brussels sealed a trade deal.
“We paid these companies to increase production and now we expect them to deliver,” EU Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters.
“Today’s measure has been adopted with the utmost urgency. The aim is to provide us immediately with full transparency…. And if needed, it also will provide us with a tool to ensure vaccine deliveries.”
EU officials said they expected the order to come into effect on Saturday after its publication in the official journal.
The emergency measure is initially for six weeks but is intended to then continue until at least the end of March.
The WHO said the move was part of a “very worrying trend” that could jeopardise the global supply chain for vaccines.
“It is not helpful to have any country at this stage putting export bans or export barriers that will not allow for the free movement of the necessary ingredients that will make vaccines, diagnostics and other medicines available to all the world,” said Mariangela Simao, WHO assistant director for access to medicines and health product.
The EU’s plan applies only to those coronavirus vaccines that are covered by advance purchase agreements between drug companies and the European Commission.
Those firms in the EU will have to apply for an authorisation to export doses meant for countries outside the bloc, and show their export records for the previous three months.
A response would normally be given within 48 hours, though that could be extended if necessary.
Most non-EU countries in and around Europe, such as Switzerland, those in the Balkans or micro-states like Monaco, are exempted from the measure.
But Britain, which last year left the EU amid much acrimony, is not.
Brussels has been in a furious dispute with AstraZeneca this week, accusing it of breaching its contract by delaying deliveries to EU governments while maintaining those under a deal it signed earlier with the UK.
But Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides insisted: “We are not protecting ourselves against any specific country. And we’re not in competition or in a race against any country.”
The prior three-month reporting period would presumably reveal whether or not AstraZeneca did indeed — as has been alleged — send vaccines to Britain from its vaccine plants in Europe, which it says have since been hit by production glitches.
Belgian authorities on Thursday searched one AstraZeneca plant in southern Belgium at the European Commission’s request. Data seized is being analysed.
– ‘A fair approach’ –
EU officials insisted that the scheme is not targeting AstraZeneca alone, but all Covid vaccine-exporting firms tied to the Commission by contracts.
The main goal, they said, was to gather information, though they admitted that in “certain circumstances” vaccine exports could be denied.
“What we want to achieve is of course, a fair approach. And transparency will help us in that respect,” said one official on condition of anonymity.
Vaccines, he said, are “a very strategic product, at a very delicate time”.
The officials noted that the EU’s vaccine procurement portfolio is for 2.5 billion doses of authorised and potential vaccines — more than enough for the bloc’s 450 million inhabitants.
That is because the Commission also bought on behalf of poorer countries, with its excess doses to be funnelled through the WHO-led COVAX facility.
“We’re not talking about vaccine nationalism,” one official said. “From the beginning we intended to share these vaccines with our neighbours.”
Right now, though, the EU’s vaccination programme is flagging badly, triggering anger among member states.
On Britain not being exempted from the export-authorisation scheme, one EU official said: “The United Kingdom does not belong to either the COVAX countries nor to the EFTA (EU-linked European Free Trade Association) countries, nor to the neighbourhood.”
Speaking at a virtual news conference later Friday, AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said the firm was working “24/7 to improve the supply we have”.
“We have a very very broad supply chain around the world. We are already producing an enormous amount of vaccine over a month
“Our plan is to source some of this material and bring it to Europe. The first shipment will be about three million doses that are going to leave in the next few days,” he added.