Vaccine Nationalism: EU’s Tug-of-War Over COVID Jab Export

Written by | Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
@Eubulletin

A sluggish start to the vaccine roll-out has cast a long shadow on the online meeting of EU leaders, who on Thursday (25 March) discussed the bloc’s vaccine strategy. There has been a muted backing for the EU Commission’s plans to tighten export rules, as the bloc wants to make sure pharmaceutical companies, particularly AstraZeneca, deliver on their EU contracts before exporting. The meeting of EU leaders followed a EU Commission’s document published on Wednesday (24 March) that proposed to sharpen its rules on the export of COVID-19 vaccines, and stop shipping to countries with higher inoculation rates – as well as those that do not send back doses or raw materials to the bloc. The move could escalate tensions with manufacturers and EU allies, as Europe battles with a rising third wave of infections, stricter lockdowns, and sluggish vaccine roll-out due to slow deliveries from pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.
EU leaders have generally shied away from supporting the use of new powers to block COVID-19 vaccine shipments to countries such as the UK with better jab coverage than the bloc. The summit stressed “the importance of transparency as well as of the use of export authorisations”. Countries such as Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, who are concerned about the impact on supply chains, have pushed back against any explicit reference to the commission’s revised regulation. The Commission will keep its new powers despite the lack of explicit backing of EU leaders, but diplomatic sources from within the most sceptical member states said they hoped the “stick will never be used”. The EU has suffered from a major supply shortfall of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because of a yield problem at a plant in Belgium and the company’s subsequent refusal to divert doses made in the UK. The EU is threatening to block the export to the UK of an unspecified number of doses being made at an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands. Following negotiations between the EU and UK officials, the two sides said in a joint statement on Wednesday (24 March) that they were continuing to seek a “win-win” solution.
This development comes against the backdrop of rising fears across the bloc about the ‘alarming’ third wave that have prompted some countries to re-impose lockdown measures. The so-called UK variant, which is up to 75% more transmissible, is now reportedly the dominant strain in the EU. The European Commission has raised concerns about the “alarming” epidemiological situation in some member states, warning that it could worsen in the coming weeks as a third wave of the pandemic hits the continent. “We are facing again an exceptional situation,” the EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a press conference on Wednesday (24 March). Following freshly imposed lockdown measures in Germany and Italy, Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced earlier in the week that the country will go into four weeks of Easter lockdown, starting from Saturday (27 March). “The [corona] consultation committee decided to choose for the short pain. We want to squash the third wave”, he said.

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