The EU may halt exports of Covid-19 vaccines to Britain to safeguard scarce doses for its own citizens unless the UK starts shipping shots to the bloc, the European commission president has said.
“We want to see reciprocity and proportionality in exports and we are ready to use whatever tool we need to deliver on that,” Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday. “This is about making sure that Europe gets its fair share.”
She said the EU had received more than 300 requests for overseas vaccine shipments over the past six weeks and refused just one, and the bloc had exported 41m doses to 33 countries.
“This shows that Europe is trying to make international cooperation work,” she said. “But open roads run in both directions … It is hard to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the EU are going to other countries that are also producing vaccines, but hardly anything is coming back.”
Von der Leyen said the bloc had exported 10m doses to the UK in the past six weeks, making it “country number one as far as exports from the EU is concerned”.
But while the UK was producing AstraZeneca vaccines, and “there are even two sites in the UK that are our contract for potential deliveries for the EU … we’re still waiting for doses to come from the UK. So this is an invitation for reciprocity.”
The majority of vaccines exported from the EU to the UK have been made by Pfizer, which distributes globally from its European production sites. The EU has blocked only one export request, a shipment of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca doses from Italy to Australia.
Von der Leyen said that while BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna were meeting their contractual obligations to the bloc, AstraZeneca was on course to deliver just 30m of its promised 90m does in the first quarter and 70m of a contracted 180m in the second.
The British government has repeatedly said it has not imposed an export ban on vaccine components or completed doses, but it did ensure that vaccine doses produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca at the sites in Staffordshire and Oxford would supply Britain first.
The EU has been angered by the refusal of the Anglo-Swedish firm to redirect doses in light of production shortfalls from its European facilities.
Von der Leyen said the bloc was in “the crisis of the century. We have to make sure Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible. Human lives, civil liberties and our economy are dependent on the speed of vaccination on moving forward.”
If the vaccine supply situation did not change, she said, “we will have to reflect on how to make exports to vaccine-producing countries dependent on their level of openness. And on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate.”
Von der Leyen said the US, which does operate a formal export ban, was not such an issue because “with the US the reciprocity is given. There are no exports of vaccines from the US to the EU, but nor are there exports from the EU to the US. And there is a seamless flow back and forth of pre-products and raw materials.”