Covid: Tougher EU vaccine export controls could hit UK as continent faces possible third wave

Jon StoneWed, 24 March 2021, 7:49 pm

 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has warned the EU that a vaccine export ban could result in “considerable” damage after the European Commission said tougher controls were needed amid tensions over AstraZeneca supplies.

The prime minister suggested that companies would invest outside the EU if vaccine “blockades” were imposed, and refused to rule out retaliatory action.

The comments came after European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis announced plans for all shipments of vaccines to be assessed on the destination country’s rate of vaccinations and vaccine exports, and appeared to single out the UK for failing to export any doses.

The Commissioner said the EU had exported at least 43 million doses of the various vaccines to 33 countries since the end of January despite Europe’s own troubles with the virus – and often got few doses in return.

“Continued shortfalls in production are not distributed fairly across different contracting countries”, Mr Dombrovskis said, in an apparent reference to the export of jabs to the UK.

The commissioner said the EU “continues to export vaccines to countries that have production capacities of their own but when these countries do not export to the EU there is no reciprocity”.

It also “continues to export significantly to countries whose epidemiological situation is less serious than ours or whose vaccination rollout is more advanced than ours”.

But back in Westminster Boris Johnson told MPs of the issue: “I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of the ingredients for vaccines are sensible.

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“I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be can be very considerable.”

And he added: “I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade or interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.”

It comes ahead of a EU summit on Thursday, where EU leaders will discuss the politics of any export bans and which countries they might affect.

In a joint statement issued on Wednesday evening, the UK government and European Commission said: “We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important.

“We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the UK and EU on COVID-19.”

“Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short-, medium – and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.”

“In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges. We will continue our discussions.”

Continued shortfalls in production are not distributed fairly across different contracting countries

European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis

It comes after 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine thought to be bound for Mexico and Canada were blocked from leaving Italy.

Initial reports in the Italian press that the vaccine doses stopped form leaving Italy were destined for the UK have been contradicted by both UK and EU sources. Mr Dombrovskis said of 381 requests for vaccine exports made under the export control system introduced earlier this year, 380 had been approved.

He added: “Europe has taken every step to act fairly and responsibly, mindful of our global leadership role, since the start of the pandemic. The EU remains the biggest global exporter of vaccines.”

Updating reporters on the unfolding possiblity of a “third wave” in Europe, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “The revision of the export transparency mechanism really does come at a time with the situation remaining alarming in many member states.

“We are starting to see more most concerning circumstances. This is evidenced by the fact that 19 countries are now reporting increasing case numbers, 15 member states are reporting increased hospital and ICU admissions, while eight member states are now reporting increased numbers of deaths.

“The R number is still broadly around one or slightly above, indicating for the moment a fairly stable rate level of transmission. But, of course, the situation is concerning.”

She added that the more virulent UK variant had now become “the dominant strain circulating in the EU and EEA and has been identified in all in all but two countries”, representing up to 80 per cent of sequenced strains.

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