Brussels faces an international backlash over its new controls on vaccine exports as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen struggles to quell a firestorm over the EU's handling of vaccine shortages.
Canada and Japan raised concerns over export rules requiring manufacturers to obtain permission before shipping Covid-19 jabs outside the EU. South Korea also warned governments against a grab for more vaccines than they need.
The measures give EU member states and the commission the ability to block vaccine shipments from companies from which the EU has ordered supplies.
The export controls are a response to AstraZeneca’s failure to meet its vaccine delivery schedule to the EU – a commitment the company insists is not binding. They follow a week in which panic grew in EU capitals and at the top levels of the commission over the continent’s faltering vaccine rollout.
The Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (Ipha) said now was not the time for vaccine protectionism and warned that export controls could jeopardise the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to people in Europe as well as in other countries.
"Global supply chains are vital, whether for moving ingredients of medicines and vaccines or the finished products. Manufacturing sites should not face restrictions," said Ipha, which represents the pharma sector, including AstraZeneca and Pfizer, who have approved Covid-19 vaccines, as well as Johnson & Johnson's Janssen, which is preparing to apply for approval for a one-shot vaccine.
“Introducing export obstructions could severely limit manufacturers’ capacity to meet global demand,” the industry group said. “Vaccine manufacturers are scaling production at unprecedented speed. Sometimes, things can go wrong. Fluctuations in the supply of doses, though frustrating, can be a feature of manufacturing complex biological products. But companies are working as fast as they can to protect everyone.”
Pfizer, which last week announced a landmark agreement that will see its rival Sanofi manufacture 125 million doses of its vaccine for the EU, has now reached a similar agreement with another direct rival – Swiss group, Novartis.
Canadian trade minister Mary Ng spoke to Valdis Dombrovskis, EU trade commissioner, to emphasise the importance of critical health and medical supply chains remaining "open and resilient", according to a spokesperson.
Ms Ng said she had sought and received reassurances that the export transparency mechanism would not affect shipments to Canada. Ottawa is counting on doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine made in the EU.
Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's foreign minister, was due to speak to Mr Dombrovskis on Monday for a previously scheduled meeting on the two economies' trade agreement.
Taro Kono, the Japanese minister in charge of its pandemic response, on Friday told the World Economic Forum that he was concerned the EU might seek to block vaccine exports until it had satisfied demand within the bloc.
Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea's foreign minister, questioned why some governments were seeking to secure stocks of vaccine that far outweighed their populations' needs, warning this could fuel "global disunity".
“We fully understand that some of our allies may have concerns and will work closely with them to ensure a speedy supply of vaccines,” one EU official said on Sunday. “We will work hard to avoid any knock-on effects on our partners and we remain committed to open markets to avoid any disruption of supply chains.”
The commission was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on Friday night over a provision in the original measures to trigger an emergency clause in the Brexit withdrawal treaty that would have created a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021