The UK and the European Union (EU) are embroiled in a public diplomatic row about Covid-19 vaccine exports.
European Council President Charles Michel claimed the UK and the US were imposing “an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory”.
Michel made this claim in a newsletter blog post while defending the EU from accusations of vaccine nationalism during the pandemic. “I am staggered to hear Europe accused of not acting in solidarity”, he wrote.
By contrast to the UK and the US, he continued, “the EU, the region with the largest vaccine production capacity in the world, has simply put in place a system for controlling the export of doses produced in the EU. Our objective: to prevent companies from which we have ordered and pre-financed doses from exporting them to other advanced countries when they have not delivered to us what was promised. The EU has never stopped exporting.”
These comments are believed to follow other statements made in EU institutions about the UK’s vaccine export policy, according to the Guardian.
The EU’s accusations come within a week of Italy, with the support of the European Commission (EC), refusing to export more than 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca /University of Oxford Covid-19 vaccine to Australia. Italy justified this move on the grounds that Australia was not a vulnerable state and due to the ongoing shortage of vaccine doses in Italy and the EU as a whole.
Italy leveraged a temporary export mechanism for Covid-19 vaccines implemented by the EU after a public row with AstraZeneca over vaccine supply issues in January.
The UK Government has responded with fury to Michel’s comments about a UK export ban. The Financial Times reported that one official called the claim “an outright lie” and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote to Michel saying “any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false”.
Raab is also believed to have summoned a representative of the EU’s diplomatic delegation in London to the Foreign Office to discuss the matter further.
During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons earlier today, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I therefore wish to correct the suggestion from the European Council President that the UK has blocked vaccine exports. Let me be clear, we have not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components.
“This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms.”
In response to the UK’s denials of vaccine export bans, Michel tweeted:
Glad if the UK reaction leads to more transparency & increased exports, to EU and third countries.
Different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines.
EU is providing vaccines for its citizens and rest of the world.
No one is safe until everyone is safe.
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) March 9, 2021
This latest vaccine export row also occurs in the context of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) telling the EU it is likely to have Covid-19 vaccine supply problems in Europe, according to Reuters and reported in US News. J&J told the EU that this may challenge its plan to deliver 55 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the continent in the second quarter of 2021.
J&J’s vaccine has already been approved in the US and Canada, and is currently being reviewed by the EU’s healthcare regulator the European Medicines Agency, with an approval expected later this week.
However, it is not all doom and gloom for the EU and its vaccine roll-out. The EC announced this morning that it has signed a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech for access to four million additional doses of their Covid-19 vaccine in the next two weeks.
“This will help Member States in their efforts to keep the spread of new variants under control,” said EC President Ursula von der Leyen. “Through their targeted use where they are most needed, in particular in border regions, these doses will also help ensure or restore free movement of goods and people. These are key for the functioning of health systems and the Single Market.”