Covid-19 in Europe

EU to tighten Covid-19 vaccine export approval to ensure doses for own citizens

European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides (R) and Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis at a news conference on the EU's new export authorisation mechanism of Covid-19 vaccines, 24 March 2021.
European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides (R) and Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis at a news conference on the EU's new export authorisation mechanism of Covid-19 vaccines, 24 March 2021. © Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via Reuters

The European Union has tightened its rules on the export of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure there are enough doses for its own citizens as new infections increase.  Export authorisations will now be contingent on the destination countries’ vaccination rates and their own export policies.

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"Open roads should run in both directions," said EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday.

"This is why the European Commission will introduce the principles of reciprocity and proportionality into the EU's existing authorisation mechanism."

The Commission will now weigh how needy countries are, both in terms of their Covid infection rates and how many vaccines they already have. Another consideration will be how readily they send vaccines or vaccine ingredients to the EU.

"We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens,” said Von der Leyen. “Every day counts."

Not an export ban

Officials insisted the new scheme is not a "vaccine export ban". Instead, it puts pressure on companies to factor in Europe's needs before applying for export approval.

The Commission will continue to allow vaccine exports for "for humanitarian aid or destined to the 92 low and middle income countries under the Covax Advance Market Commitment list," but for other countries it will grant approval on a case-by-case basis.

Commission Vice President and trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference that the scheme is not targeting any specific country. But he did mention the UK. Since the end of January, “some ten million doses have been exported from the EU to the UK, and zero doses have been exported from UK to the EU.”

Britain, which has successfully vaccinated 45 per cent of adults with one shot, compared to less than 14 per cent in the EU, sees the new rules as a threat to its vaccination programme.

The focus has been on AstraZeneca, which has two vaccine factories in the EU and two in Britain, and which has fallen short on its promised deliveries to Europe.

AstraZeneca is "not even close" to delivering 30 million doses promised in the first three months of this year, said Dombrovskis. The company had also delivered many fewer of the 120 million doses it had been under contract to supply last year.

Blocked doses under the new scheme will not be seized by the EU. It will be up to the companies to indicate what their intentions are.

Continued exports

The EU has stood out for continuing to allow exports, while other countries with production bases, like the UK and the United States, have used legislation or contracts with pharmaceutical companies to keep doses for their populations.

Von der Leyen said the EU is at the forefront of international vaccine-sharing efforts. It has approved 380 requests, exporting 43 million vaccine doses to 33 countries in the last six weeks, including 10.9 million to the UK.

The EU has only applied an export ban once, to vaccines being sent from Italy to Australia, which has low infection rates compared to Europe.

(with wires)

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