WHO calls for end to vaccine export bans as scramble slows supply

Pressure rises as Italy prepares to confine citizens to homes again to counter Covid surge

The World Health Organisation called on all countries to drop restrictions on the export of vaccines and vital components, as a rush for Covid-19 jabs puts pressure on global supply and a fresh wave of infections threatens Europe.

Several countries around the world have imposed bans or restrictions on exports of doses and key vaccine ingredients amid a scramble for stock, causing logjams in complex international pharmaceutical supply chains that could slow progress to end the pandemic, the global health body warned.

"Some countries have imposed legal restrictions on the export of critical supplies. This is putting lives at risk around the world. We call on all countries not to stockpile supplies that are needed urgently to ramp up production of vaccines," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press conference.

“In a global pandemic no country can go it alone, we are all interdependent,” he added. “We cannot end the pandemic anywhere unless we end it everywhere.”


US stockpile

A ban on vaccine exports by the United States has led to 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine accumulating in an Ohio facility, and tens of millions more in a separate facility in Baltimore, the New York Times reported. The AstraZeneca vaccine is not yet approved for use in the United States, so cannot be used domestically.

“We understand other governments may have reached out to the US government about donation of AstraZeneca doses, and we’ve asked the US government to give thoughtful consideration to these requests,” a spokesman for AstraZeneca said.

The European Union is in talks with Washington in a bid to ease supply bottlenecks, a European Commission spokesman said on Friday, after US president Joe Biden said his country would only be prepared to share doses once his own population was served.

The EU has exported a million doses to the US and more than 8 million to Britain since February, but has extended until June a requirement for permits for some vaccine exports that saw Italy block a shipment due to Australia last week.

Glass vials, plastic components and raw materials used in vaccines are among the components in short supply due to the sudden surge in demand, according to the WHO.

Planned vaccination campaigns across the EU have been hampered by steep cuts in expected deliveries from AstraZeneca, which is on course to supply only 30 million doses by the end of March rather than the more than 100 million that were initially expected.

"I see efforts, but not 'best efforts'," European commissioner Thierry Breton wrote on social media, calling on the board of AstraZeneca "to exercise its fiduciary responsibility" to meet the company's commitments.

Third waves

The shortfalls and uneven vaccination campaigns have piled public pressure on national governments across the bloc, amid concerns a third wave of infections is building in Germany and Italy, which is preparing a strict lockdown that will confine Italians to their homes for the Easter weekend to counter the surge in infections.

There were concerns that the speed of vaccine rollout could be slowed as several European countries temporarily paused the use of two batches of AstraZeneca vaccines pending a review of reports of blood clots in patients.

The WHO said there is no indication that vaccines caused such conditions, and that a certain number of cases would be expected when the jabs are given to so many people, because such conditions occur in the population.

“More than 335 million doses have been administered globally so far, and no deaths have have been found to be caused by Covid-19 vaccines,” said Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief. “But at least 2.6 million people have been killed by the virus, and more will continue to die the longer it takes to distribute vaccines as rapidly and as equitably as possible.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times