EU may restrict Covid-19 vaccine exports, Von Der Leyen says, as Europe faces third wave

Professor says decision by European countries to halt AstraZeneca vaccine ‘not logical’

The European Union may get more restrictive in exporting Covid-19 vaccines to safeguard essential jabs for its own citizens facing a third wave of the pandemic, the head of the bloc's executive said on Wednesday.

Ursula von der Leyen’s announcement risks escalating tensions with the United Kingdom and the Unites Stated over their restrictive approach to deliveries of vaccines to the 27-nation bloc.

She spoke as six EU countries complained to Brussels about reduced deliveries that are hampering the bloc’s already troubled inoculation campaign and could stall plans to restart travel this summer and support the battered tourism sector.

The EU faces an acute shortage of Covid-19 jabs due to reduced deliveries by AstraZeneca.


“We are in the crisis of the century," Ms von der Leyen said as Covid-related deaths in the EU top 550,000 and less than a tenth of the bloc’s population has been inoculated.

“If this situation does not change, we will have to reflect on how to make exports to vaccine-producing countries dependent on their level of openness,” she said.

“We will reflect on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate.”

The sluggish inoculation campaign threatens plans announced by the Commission to introduce a “green digital certificate” that would collate information on vaccinations, tests and Covid recovery to let travellers cross borders freely again.

Southern EU countries reliant on tourism and other proponents of the new Covid-19 certificate hope it would win final approvals in June and go online just in time for the peak season. But countries including France, Belgium and Germany have voiced scepticism.

EU countries will be under pressure to agree a common position swiftly for their 450 million people. The task is further complicated by uncertainty over whether those inoculated can transmit the virus, and public scepticism about vaccines.


Meanwhile, an expert from the UK’s vaccination committee has said people across Europe will die from Covid-19 as a direct consequence of the decision to halt rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Professor Jeremy Brown said the move by more than a dozen European countries to suspend the vaccine over blood clot fears was "not sensible" and was "not logical".

Prof Brown, a consultant in respiratory medicine and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said he was worried the decision could drive up the number of people who are hesitant about booking their vaccine.

“There is the concern that what’s happening in Europe might make people in the UK less confident in the AstraZeneca vaccine, unnecessarily so, because it’s perfectly safe,” he told Good Morning Britain.

The vaccine has been given to around 11 million people in the UK “and there’s been no serious side-effects” reported in this country, he added.

“It is confusing to understand why so many countries have decided to stop using the vaccine.

“Many of those countries are going through a third wave, and by stopping using the vaccine they’re actually literally causing more problems.

“By not using the vaccine, this is going to directly lead to an increased incidence of Covid infection and people will die as a consequence of these decisions.”

Sweden and Latvia have followed countries including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, in temporarily suspending AstraZeneca jabs in light of a small number of reports of bleeding, blood clots and low blood platelet counts.

Some of the focus has been on Germany, where officials have received seven reports in total of bleeding and a form of severe cerebral venous thrombosis associated with low platelets.

Of the seven people, three have died, and all were aged between 20 and 50, officials said.

Six of the people had a particular form of cerebral venous thrombosis, called sinus vein thrombosis, and all of these were “younger to middle-aged women”.

In Italy, health minister Roberto Speranza said he and other European countries are hopeful the European Medicines Agency, which is due to deliver its verdict on Thursday, will provide the "the clarifications and reassurances necessary" to re-start use of the vaccine.

Meanwhile, French prime minister Jean Castex has said he is willing to take the AstraZeneca jab and wants to demonstrate to his fellow citizens "that vaccination is the exit door from this crisis".

‘Very, very rare’

Speaking on Good Morning Britain, Prof Brown said the blood clots reported in Europe were “very, very rare events which may be occurring in three or four people per million people vaccinated.

“And yet, on the other side, that is against the fact that if you vaccinate a million people with the AstraZeneca vaccine, you’re going to save 1,000 lives.

“They have taken the precautionary principle about doing no harm and they have used it in the wrong way — by looking at not using the vaccine, whereas in fact you should continue using the vaccine unless there’s incredibly good reasons not to.”

Prof Brown said he did not believe clots reported in Germany “will turn out to be linked to the vaccine anyway — this is an incredibly rare event”.

He added: “We don’t know how often it occurs, even if people have not been vaccinated.

“It’s a complication of actually having acute Covid infection itself, and therefore it’s very, very rare and unlikely to be linked to the vaccine.

“Using that as a reason to stop using the vaccine when we know the vaccine prevents 85 to 90 per cent admission to hospital is not sensible.”

He later told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the concerns raised in Germany were “overblown”.

He added: “I don’t see it being likely to be linked to the vaccine either mechanistically, or the numbers involved are so low it seems very unlikely that there’s much increased risk, if any increased risk, with the vaccine at all.”

He continued: “I don’t understand why this is happening.

“To me it doesn’t seem at all logical, because we do know the vaccine works...It is an incredibly effective vaccine, and by rolling out the vaccine you prevent deaths.”

He said that by stopping the rolling out of the vaccine, European countries “will cause more illness and more deaths” from Covid than they would ever prevent due to the “unlikely” situation that there is an increased risk of blood clots from a vaccine.

“It is not logical,” he added.

Another wave

A former chief executive of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency also defended the vaccine, saying linking it to blood clots was a “big jump”.

Sir Kent Woods said: "We mustn't forget that in the European Union the latest figures show that there was something like 2,000 deaths a day occurring from Covid.

“This is a very serious pandemic.

“And I think a disruption of the vaccination of their populations is a very unfortunate event.

“The countries of mainland Europe have always lagged behind in the vaccine rollout and several of them are showing clear signs of going into yet another wave of infection.

“It is really important that vaccination rates achieve their maximum as quickly as possible.

“And given that there have been difficulties with supply in some parts of Europe, given that there has been this further confusion with suspending the vaccine programme, it is not doing anything at all for population health.

“And although it is tempting to say that the regulators in those countries are being safe, I think they’re doing the opposite.

“I think they’re actually increasing the risk to the population in the face of a very major pandemic.”

On Tuesday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock sought to reassure the public that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe.

He told broadcasters: “We keep the effects of these vaccines under review all the time and we know that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is saving lives in the UK right now, so if you get the call, get the jab.”

Also on Tuesday, Emer Cooke, the EMA's executive director, told a press briefing there was "no indication" that the vaccine was the cause of the "very rare" reported blood clots.

In the UK up until February 28th, the MHRA has received 30 reports of blood clots in people who had the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and 38 reports associated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. –PA