Coronavirus vaccines produced in the European Union could be restricted from export to the UK under a tougher regime to stem supplies to nations faring better in the pandemic.
Admitting it is a Covid-19 “hotspot”, the European Commission said on Wednesday it may not approve exports to nations with more advanced vaccine rollouts or where there is a better “epidemiological situation”.
The EU announced the move as it is embroiled in a row with AstraZeneca over supplies, but did not rule out Pfizer jabs being restricted to the UK if sufficient vaccines are not shipped to the bloc.
Member states were told to consider “reciprocity”, whether the destination country restricts its own vaccine exports, when authorising exports as the commission struck out against an alleged lack of British shipments.
Commission executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis denied the export authorisation mechanism was targeted at any one country but said 10 million jabs had moved from the EU to the UK since it introduced checks and that “zero doses” had returned from British plants.
He argued the controls are necessary because while the EU is one of the “global hotspots of the pandemic” it is also the “largest exporter of vaccines”.
Member states and the commission will consider two key factors before authorising vaccine exports under the mechanism, which was extended until the end of June.
First they will consider whether the destination country restricts its own exports of vaccines, or raw materials, under plans to tackle “reciprocity”.
Second, under “proportionality”, they will consider whether the “conditions prevailing” in the destination country are “better or worse than the EU’s”.
Its epidemiological situation, its vaccination rate and its access to vaccines were listed as particular considerations.
Across the EU, just over 11% of adults have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine but in the UK the figure is nearly 54%.
Continental Europe is also experiencing a “third wave” of coronavirus cases as the UK slowly emerges from a winter of lockdown.
A UK Government spokesman said: “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.
“We remain confident in our supplies and are on track to offer first doses to all over-50s by April 15 and all adults by the end of July. Our plan to cautiously reopen society via our road map also remains unchanged.”
But concerns over UK supplies will centre largely on Pfizer, the main vaccine export from the bloc and being produced in Germany and Belgium.
Mr Dombrovskis did not rule out restricting the Pfizer product, saying: “Concrete decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis.”
A spokeswoman for Pfizer said it was assessing the “full implications” of the commission’s move, adding: “We have been clear and consistent with all stakeholders that the free movement of goods and supply across borders is absolutely critical to Pfizer and the patients we serve, particularly during this devastating global pandemic.
“Pfizer is deeply concerned by any legislation that threatens our ability to manufacture in, or export from, the European Union.
“We are working closely with governments around the world, including the European Commission, to continue to meet our commitments and ensure the supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in accordance with the agreed schedules.”
The spokeswoman added it had an agreement with the European Commission to deliver 500 million doses by the end of 2021 and an option for a further 100 million doses.
Mr Dombrovskis maintained the EU’s criticism of British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, saying it had “only delivered a small portion of its agreed contractual commitments” to the bloc.
The commissioner said “continued shortfalls in production are not distributed fairly across different contracting countries”, in an apparent reference to the production of AstraZeneca jabs in the UK.
Denying the bloc was implementing an “export ban”, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “We’re dealing with a pandemic and this is not seeking to punish any countries.”
Bernd Lange, chairman of the European Parliament’s international trade committee, hit out at the commission’s move, warning it could have consequences for the bloc’s vaccination efforts.
“Everyone should realise what kind of danger we are engaging in: we might end up with less vaccines for the EU. Because now all manufacturers are being held hostage for the problems with AstraZeneca,” he said.
“The EU Commission brings out the shotgun.
“But using the cluster munitions we may end up shooting ourselves in the foot because the supply chains for vaccine production might be affected and interrupted.”
Ahead of the announcement, Boris Johnson had signalled tensions could be thawing with the bloc during diplomatic efforts as he rejected imposing any “blockades” in retaliation.
But using the cluster munitions we may end up shooting ourselves in the foot because the supply chains for vaccine production might be affected and interrupted.— Bernd Lange (@berndlange) March 24, 2021
The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday evening: “It’s not something that this country would dream of engaging in and I’m encouraged in some of the things I’ve heard from the continent in the same sense.”
The La Stampa website reported that 29 million AstraZeneca doses had been discovered by Italian inspectors being stored at the Catalent plant near Rome under an investigation by the European Commission.
A UK source said Britain is not expecting the delivery of Catalent supplies from Italy, while the commission declined to comment on the report.
AstraZeneca said 13 million doses are awaiting quality control ahead of being dispatched to the Covax initiative for distribution in low-income countries.
Another 16 million are waiting for quality control clearance before being released to Europe, with close to 10 million jabs expected to be delivered to EU states in late March and the balance in April.
A spokesman for the firm said: “It is incorrect to describe this as a stockpile. The process of manufacturing vaccines is very complex and time consuming.
“In particular, vaccine doses must wait for quality control clearance after the filling of vials is completed.”