Will the UK-EU vaccine war delay lockdown lifting?
Ban on export of Covid jabs to Britain threatens to slow campaign to inoculate population
Health experts breathed a sigh of relief after the EU and UK avoided a vaccine war earlier this year when the bloc backed down on plans to restrict Covid jab exports.
But now hostilities have flared up again in the wake of a fresh threat to block doses bound for Britain while Brussels struggles to meet the EU’s shortfall.
Boris Johnson is expected to speak to his European counterparts this week in an effort to avoid further clashes that could threaten the UK’s speedy vaccination campaign.
EU on the offensive
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday warned the European Commission that “the world is watching”, after the bloc threatened to veto exports of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines made by sub-contractor Helix in the Netherlands.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Germany’s Funke Media Group on Saturday that the bloc was considering “the possibility to forbid planned exports”.
“That is the message to AstraZeneca,” she said. “You fulfil your contract with Europe before you start delivering to other countries.”
But Wallace told Sky’s Sophie Ridge on Sunday that implementing such a ban would be a “very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc that prides itself on rule of law”. The move would be “counterproductive because the one thing we know about vaccination production and manufacture is that it is collaborative”, he added.
On the opposite side of the barricades, an EU official told Reuters that while “the Brits are insisting that the Halix plant in the Netherlands must deliver the drug substance produced there to them”, the stockpile “produced in Halix has to go to the EU”.
The Leiden-based plant is listed as a supplier of vaccines “in both the contracts that AstraZeneca has signed with Britain and with the European Union”, the news agency reports.
Despite being named one of the EU’s main sources of production in a deal signed last August, the factory does not have regulatory approval to supply the bloc, the Financial Times (FT) reports.
But an internal AstraZeneca document seen by Reuters reportedly shows that the drug maker expects to secure EU approval later this week.
Meanwhile, while there are currently no outstanding requests for UK exports from the Helix production plant, “London has insisted its deal with AstraZeneca to supply the UK with 100 million doses gives it first call on production from EU plants as well as British factories”, says the FT.
Johnson is expected to phone European leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel this week in a bid to enlist them to oppose Brussels’ proposed expert ban, which would “push post-Brexit relations to a new low”, the paper adds.
Could a ban derail the UK’s vaccine rollout?
European Commission boss Von der Leyen said last week that the bloc was unhappy with the level of vaccine “reciprocity” between the two states. The UK has received ten million shots from Brussels so far, while the EU has “not received anything from the British”, she told reporters.
The EU is having major supply issues with AstraZeneca, which was contracted to deliver 180 million jabs to the bloc in the second quarter of this year but will now deliver less than half that amount - despite managing to fulfil its obligations to the UK government.
That said, while the spat between London and Brussels largely centres on the AstraZeneca vaccine, “most of the jabs being exported from the EU to Britain are Pfizer”, notes Politico’s London Playbook. So the extent to which a block on jabs from AstraZeneca’s Dutch plant would affect the UK’s vaccination campaign is “unclear”, the news site says.
The UK rollout is facing a separate setback, however, after AstraZeneca vaccine-maker the Serum Institute of India (SII) warned that the delivery of five million doses would be delayed.
According to an analysis for The Guardian, Downing Street’s target date for offering every UK adult at least one vaccine dose could be pushed back by two weeks as a result of the delivery delay, to 23 June.
And an export ban on all vaccinations due to be brought to the UK - including the Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen jabs - could see the target date pushed back by two months, to 27 August, the paper reports.
Even a block on the Pfizer vaccine alone could delay every adult receiving a jab until 5 August, the research by data analytics firm Airfinity suggests.
However, No. 10 has insisted that while an EU export ban could delay the speed of Britain’s vaccination programme, the government’s roadmap out of lockdown would remain largely unaffected “as it would affect only the May and June supplies, when all over-50s will have been protected”, The Times reports.