Tensions are rising between the European Union and United Kingdom over threats from the European Commission to block vaccine exports out of the EU.
UK defence secretary Ben Wallace issued a warning to the commission on Sunday, saying that any attempt to block coronavirus vaccine exports to the UK would be "counterproductive".
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has ramped up the rhetoric this weekend, saying the EU has the power to "forbid" exports, adding: "That is the message to AstraZeneca. " The warning reflects growing frustration that the EU is not getting the supplies it expected from the British-Swedish manufacturer.
EU commissioner Maireád McGuinness said no decisions have been taken but EU leaders will consider the matter when they meet on Thursday.
“European citizens are growing angry and upset at the fact that the vaccine rollout has not happened as rapidly as we had anticipated,” she told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“Both the EU and the UK have contracts with AstraZeneca and my understanding is the company is supplying the UK but not the European Union.
“We are supplying the UK with other vaccines, so I think this is just about openness and transparency.”
Mr Wallace, however, hit back by warning the manufacture of the Pfizer vaccine depends on supplies from the UK.
“The grown-up thing would be for the European Commission and some of the European leaders to not indulge in rhetoric but to recognise the obligations that we all have,” he told The Andrew Marr Show.
“We will all hold each other to our contracts. Making a vaccine is like baking a cake. We all have different ingredients and the European Commission will know that.
“You pointed out the point about Pfizer. They will know you wouldn’t want to cut off your nose to spite your face.”
Speaking earlier on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, he said the EU would suffer “severe reputational” damage if it tried interfering with vaccine exports.
“If contracts and undertakings get broken, that is a very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc which prides itself on the rule of law,” he said.
On Saturday, Ms von der Leyen said AstraZeneca could face export bans to countries outside the EU if the company does not speed up its delivery of vaccines to the bloc.
"We have the possibility to ban planned exports. That's the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first, before you start delivering to other countries," Ms von der Leyen told a German newspaper.
Ms von der Leyen said the contract between the EU and AstraZeneca clearly stipulates how many vaccines the EU is set to receive from AstraZeneca’s factories inside the EU and in the UK.
Ms von der Leyen said: “We didn’t get anything from the British, while we are delivering vaccines to them.” She said the commission had sent a “formal reminder” to AstraZeneca on this issue.
“I can’t explain to European citizens why we are exporting millions of vaccine doses to countries that are producing vaccines themselves and aren’t sending us anything back,” she said.
The British government deny Brussels’s claim that London are operating a de facto export ban to achieve its vaccine success.
Ms von der Leyen’s warning comes as the EU struggles to accelerate its Covid-19 vaccination rollout at a time when many member states are facing a third coronavirus wave, causing some countries to introduce new restrictions.
Since February 1st, 41 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been sent from the EU to 33 countries, the largest chunk of which was sent to the UK, and some were sent to the US, which has an export ban on vaccines.
The US export ban is raising concerns about the EU’s access to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is due for delivery from April.
AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine is one of three approved for use in the EU.
However, its usage has been overshadowed by several problems, including a slow start, recurring delivery problems and a temporary ban for several days in many EU countries earlier this week, after reports of blood clots in some recipients of the vaccine.