Today’s big question

Will the EU’s vaccine shortage trigger UK supply crisis?

Bloc to tighten exports of Pfizer jab following AstraZeneca deliveries warning

The EU has threatened to halt exports of Covid vaccines produced in the bloc amid a growing row over delayed deliveries from AstraZeneca. 

The Cambridge-based drugmaker has warned that deadlines agreed in a “three-digit million-euro” contract with the EU to supply 300 million doses cannot be met owing to manufacturing problems -  a failure that may hobble the bloc’s campaign to vaccinate 70% of adults in member states by summer. 

European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides told a press briefing last night that the EU would “take any action required to protect its citizens”, with new rules to require that all vaccine makers on the continent “provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries”.

Supply and demand

Talks between the EU and AstraZeneca yesterday “resulted in dissatisfaction with the lack of clarity and insufficient explanations” from the drugmaker, Kyriakides tweeted afterwards.

“EU member states are united: vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold,” she wrote, adding that the Commission had requested “a detailed planning of vaccine deliveries” ahead of another meeting on Wednesday.

European officials have not publicly speculated on the extent of the vaccines shortfall. But a senior EU source involved in the talks told Reuters that AstraZeneca had said deliveries of its Covid-19 vaccine to the bloc would be cut by 60% to 31 million doses in the first quarter of the year. 

The EU had been expecting AstraZeneca to deliver around 80 million doses by the end of March, the source confirmed.  

UK rollout

The authorities in Brussels have told drug companies “to secure permission from them before exporting doses to the UK” from now on, The Times reports.

The bid to prevent shortages in the bloc “will raise fears that Britain’s supplies of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, which is made in Belgium, could be disrupted”, the paper adds.

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab, so the new export curbs puts Britain’s vaccine campaign in “jeopardy”, The Telegraph says. 

Downing Street is “expecting almost 3.5 million doses, integral to the government’s target of vaccinating all over-70s by mid-February, to be delivered in the next three weeks”, the paper reports.

And inoculation targets will be even harder to hit if the EU acts on a suggestion from Germany that all vaccine exports out of the bloc be banned to safeguard supplies.

However, the UK’s Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast this morning that while UK supplies “remain tight”, he was “confident that AstraZeneca and Pfizer will both deliver for us the quantities that we need to meet our mid-February target and of course beyond”.

Zahawi also warned against what he described as “the dead end of vaccine nationalism”, adding: “No one is safe until the whole world is safe.”

Neighbourly relations

Responding to the bloc’s export control plan, former UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt told The Telegraph that “if the EU were to take action unilaterally that restricted supplies of vaccine bought legally and fairly by the UK, it would poison economic relations for a generation”.

“At such a critical moment, the world needs vaccine nationalism like a hole in the head,” he added.

Adopting a more measured tone, a government spokesperson said: “We remain in close contact with all of our vaccine suppliers and scheduled deliveries will fully support vaccination [of people over 70] by 15 February.”

The “bulk” of the AstraZeneca vaccine ordered by the UK is made in Oxfordshire and Staffordshire, the spokesperson noted.

All the same, the restrictions on vaccine exports from the EU will further weaken relations with Britain. 

The restrictions are “similar to limitations the EU imposed last spring on exports of personal protective equipment when supplies were scarce”, writes Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham, and “could derail the government’s so far successful vaccine rollout”.

In a “pretty astonishing allegation about British Big Pharma”, he adds, Brussels “essentially believes AstraZeneca has cut supplies intended for EU countries in order to sell doses to other nations at higher prices”.

Summing up the feeling on both sides of the Channel, an EU official told Politico’s Brussels Playbook that “trust has been severely shaken”.

The knock-on impact of the EU’s fallout with AstraZeneca on the UK’s vaccine campaign “is another illustration of just how fragile this issue is”, writes BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle.

“The UK already has enough vaccines to jab all the highest-risk groups by mid-February,” he continues, with a total of 367 million doses of vaccines ordered from seven manufacturers. “What is in doubt is how quickly the UK can vaccinate in the medium term.”

The UK will continue to administer jabs from the country’s existing stocks as the campaign to meet the government’s mid-February deadline continues.

But with Europe battling “major problems” rolling out its vaccination programme, “this is a story that is going to rumble on for months”, Triggle predicts.

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