EU-UK vaccine row

Boris Johnson seeks solution after EU threat to block vaccine exports to UK

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. REUTERS - HANNAH MCKAY

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is working behind the scenes to try to find a compromise in a row over vaccine supplies, ahead of a crucial EU meeting on Thursday.

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In the latest in a growing list of disagreements between the EU and the UK since it left the bloc, the sides are now embroiled in an ugly row over vaccine exports.

Specifically, they are fighting for supplies of the anti-Covid vaccine made by the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company, amid delays in its manufacture.

London signed contracts with AstraZeneca before the EU did and insists its deal with AstraZeneca allows it first option on production from EU factories, not just UK ones.

However, the EU says its deal with AstraZeneca refers to supplies from within Europe but also a share from two UK factories named in its contract.

When the Pfizer pharmaceutical company ran into problems with production of its anti-Covid vaccine, it spread the shortfall out across its customers.

However, AstraZeneca, which has less experience in making vaccines, chose instead to prioritise contracts, such as Britain’s, that reportedly have tougher safeguards.

While the EU continues its tussle with AstraZeneca, it is also trying to hold on to existing supplies of the vaccine made on EU territory.

'We are still waiting . . .'

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last week proposed blocking the export of vaccines from the EU to countries that do not reciprocate.

She cited Britain, announcing that since the beginning of February, ten million doses had been exported from the EU to the UK but that none had been received in return.   

"We're still waiting for doses to come from the UK,", she declared.

A Commission spokesperson said the reciprocity principle would apply for all types of vaccines, suggesting the EU could cut off BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines to the UK unless Britain agrees to export AstraZeneca vaccines to the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel have both since said they back Von der Leyen’s proposal.

However, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told Ireland’s RTE radio today that he was very much against such a move, adding “It’s absolutely vital that we keep supply chains open”.

The issue is to be discussed at an EU summit of national leaders on Thursday.

Boris Johnson has been phoning EU leaders this week and appears to be trying to find a compromise ahead of that EU summit.

Johnson will not want his country’s highly successful vaccine rollout to stall but neither would it be helpful to London’s reputation if, having vaccinated the old and vulnerable, the UK was deemed to be holding on to vaccines while Europe, where the rollout has been slower and less efficient, suffers a dangerous third wave.

AstraZeneca 'safe and effective'

Ironically, as EU leaders struggle to ensure greater supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, confidence in the vaccine among ordinary people in some European countries has fallen.

In January, French president Emmanuel Macron expressed doubts about its effectiveness for the over-65s and, earlier this month, concerns over a possible link with a rare form of thrombosis led several EU and non-EU countries to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency last week declared the treatment safe and effective and France is now using the vaccine again, although only for those over the age of 55. Some EU countries are still not using AstraZeneca.

It is very widely used in Britain, where it was created.

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