UK and EU pledge co-operation on Covid-19 vaccine supply

‘We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes co-operation ... even more important’

Britain and the European Union may agree to share vaccine doses after brinkmanship between the two sides was eased by a declaration to work together to keep supplies flowing amid a global scramble for doses.

“We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes co-operation between the EU and UK even more important,” read the joint statement.

“Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short, medium, and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.”

It came after Brussels announced plans to tighten controls on exports to some countries, raising concerns in Britain that their vaccine deliveries could be hit as it relies on the EU as a source particularly of Pfizer vaccines.

A standoff over AstraZeneca doses loomed between the bloc and its former member, after the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company drastically under-delivered to the EU, with both sides eyeing a stock of vaccine supply made in a factory in the Netherlands.

Amid the tensions Italian authorities discovered 29 million AstraZeneca doses at a manufacturing site near Rome, raising suspicions of stockpiling, but the company announced the doses were orders shortly due for delivery to the EU and to developing countries.

There is fierce competition for doses and key vaccine components globally, which governments fear could slow complex and inter-connected pharmaceutical supply chains if too many countries put up barriers.

Major producer India is expected to curb exports to help domestic demand as infections there rise, while the United States and Britain have both booked up local production for domestic supply -- a sore point for the EU.

The joint statement, in which Britain and the EU declared they would seek a “reciprocally beneficial relationship” has taken the heat out of the issue as EU leaders prepare to meet over video conference on Thursday and Friday.

Rate of vaccination

Nevertheless, the European Commission is expected to push ahead with a tightening of export controls that would allow it to refuse export permits for vaccine shipments if they are going to countries that are not allowing vaccines to be exported in turn to the EU, or that have a higher rate of vaccination.

Officials say they hope they will never have to refuse any exports and that the possibility alone will be enough to pressure AstraZeneca into delivering. But a number of member states including Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium are concerned of the potential for the measure to inadvertently hit companies that are meeting their deliveries, or to disrupt global supplies by triggering retaliatory restrictions if it is used.

It’s a hardening of the current system introduced in February, which allows exports to be refused if the company concerned has an unmet order with the EU, and has only been used once.

The controls do not apply to 92 low or middle-income countries, but previous exemptions for 17 countries including Switzerland, Iceland, and Israel have been removed.