The European Union tightened its controls on Covid-19 vaccine exports on Wednesday, allowing shipments headed almost anywhere to be halted.
Faced with major supply difficulties, the bloc set up a system registering outward shipments of the vital jabs in January amid an ongoing spat with British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
Up until now, exports could only be blocked if a company is deemed to be failing in its contractual obligations to the EU, and only exports to certain countries are covered.
On Wednesday, the European Commission dropped these exemptions for vaccine deliveries headed to any neighbouring countries.
The stricter system also introduces two new criteria for deliveries worldwide: how far ahead the nation receiving the shots is in their vaccination campaign; and whether vaccine-producing countries are exporting in a reciprocal manner.
“This is not a tit for tat,” an EU official said, stressing that the controls were not a ban and only served to ensure fair and secure supply of vaccines in the bloc. “That does not mean that one dose going out of the European Union has to be replicated by one dose coming in.”
The possibility of export restrictions has provoked tensions with EU member Britain, which is a major recipient of EU-produced jabs.
The new export rules come as news emerged that AstraZeneca is storing 29 million doses in Italy for export to Britain, EU sources confirmed to dpa following reports by Italian newspaper La Stampa.
The commission, which negotiated vaccine supply contracts on behalf of the 27 member states, has grown increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of deliveries – particularly from AstraZeneca.
The EU is a major exporter of vaccine shots, having shipped off some 43 million doses so far.
Only 9.5 per cent of EU residents have had at least one shot, compared to 41.7 per cent in Britain, the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project shows.
So far, the EU has blocked only one delivery of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses that was to be shipped from Italy to Australia.
The new rules technically give the bloc the right to prohibit exports of any vaccines, not only of companies that were in breach of their contracts with the EU. However, doing so was not in the interest of the bloc, an EU official said.
“I think it jumps too short now to say a company that complies with the [contracts] might still be blocked,” the EU official said. “Theoretically possible, but I think the overall assessment will show – and again the track record [that] we have – will show that we have no interest at all in blocking per se, any exports.” he said.
Responding in diplomatic tones, a British government spokesperson said London remained confident that vaccine supplies remained on track despite the announcement.
“We are all fighting the same pandemic – vaccines are an international operation; they are produced by collaboration by great scientists around the world. And we will continue to work with our European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“Our plan to cautiously reopen society via our roadmap also remains unchanged,” the spokesperson said.
There are differences of opinion among the members states on how cautious to be in exercising the export ban tool, an EU diplomatic source said Wednesday.
Belgium, where the pharmaceutical industry has a strong presence, has urged restraint, for example.