EU agrees export controls in row over Covid vaccine contract

Commission president says contract undermines AstraZeneca position on supplies from UK

The European Commission said on Friday it had agreed a plan to control exports of vaccines from the European Union, including to Britain, arguing it needed to do so to ensure its own supplies.   Photograph:  Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images

The European Commission said on Friday it had agreed a plan to control exports of vaccines from the European Union, including to Britain, arguing it needed to do so to ensure its own supplies. Photograph: Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images

 

The European Union slapped export controls on vaccines on Friday in a move to secure its own supply after AstraZeneca drastically downgraded the number of doses it could deliver just as it was cleared for use by the European Medicines Agency.

And it immediately triggered a political crisis by looking to block the flow of vaccines into Northern Ireland.

Expected to take force over the weekend, the new regulation compels pharmaceutical companies to report the quantity and destination of vaccine exports and hands member state governments the power to block them.

The controls would allow EU states to stop deliveries going to Britain, but there is a special provision in the Brexit agreement allowing continued supplies for the North.

The European Commission has sparked a political row by activating an element in Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol, article 16, to prevent the North being used as a back door to funnel coronavirus vaccine from the bloc into the rest of the UK. First Minister Arlene Foster called an “incredible act of hostility”

Article 16 gives either side the ability to unilaterally suspend aspects of its operations if either side considers that aspect is causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. However, it is supposed to be triggered only in the event of undefined” serious problems. It was unclear on Friday night how the Article 16 move would play out, amid reports that the EU was going to revoke it. 

Controls

The aim of the export controls is to “ensure timely access to Covid-19 vaccines for all EU citizens”, the European Commission said, and comes after EU officials suggested AstraZeneca had shipped vaccine doses produced in the EU to Britain while skimping on deliveries promised to the bloc.

The export controls come amid a deepening row with AstraZeneca over its surprise notification to the EU that it would be able to provide just 60 per cent of expected doses by the end of March.

Speaking on Friday as a redacted version of the disputed AstraZeneca contract was published with the company’s agreement, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was “crystal clear” that AstraZeneca is bound by its contract to deliver coronavirus vaccine doses produced in the UK to the EU to make up for a shortfall in production in Belgium.

She dismissed the arguments of AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, that the British government had a first claim on doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire.

Dr von der Leyen said the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company was legally obliged to use all four plants named in its contract – two in the UK, one in Belgium and a fourth in the Netherlands – to deliver on its promised order.

“AstraZeneca promised us explicitly that no other obligations stand in the way of fulfilling this contract, and that is all that counts here,” she said. – Additional reporting from Reuters