A senior UK government minister has warned the EU after the president of the European Commission threatened to block vaccine exports, saying “the world is watching”.
Defence Minister Ben Wallace said it would be “counterproductive” to block AstraZeneca”s exports, the day after Ursula von der Leyen said a ban was possible. The EU accuses the company of failing to meet agreed delivery targets.
The EU and the UK have been sparring for weeks over vaccine exports, as inoculations continue apace in Britain while the continent faces an ongoing shortage and struggles to speed up its programme.
On Saturday the UK said it had vaccinated half the adult population, while EU countries imposed or considered new lockdown measures to curb rising COVID-19 cases.
“The European Union will know that the rest of the world is looking at the Commission about how it conducts itself on this,” Wallace told Sky News. “If contracts get broken… that is a very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc that prides itself on the of law.”
Emphasising the collaborative nature of vaccine production which involves several countries around the world, the minister warned that blocking exports would badly damage the EU’s reputation.
“Trying to somehow divide or put up walls would only hurt the citizens of the EU and the UK,” the minister later said in another interview.
EU ‘practises vaccine internationalism’
European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness responded by saying allegations of “vaccine nationalism” levied at the EU by the UK government were unfair.
“We could be accused of vaccine internationalism, because we have exported to 31 countries, including the United Kingdom,” she told the BBC, adding that all options were on the table but no decision had been taken.
As coronavirus infections soar in Europe, on Saturday the Commission president again stepped up the pressure on pharmaceutical companies over vaccine supplies.
Von der Leyen said AstraZeneca in particular could face export bans to countries outside the EU if it didn’t quickly meet its agreed targets “before you start to deliver to other countries”. She said its contract with the EU provided for the delivery of doses produced both on EU territory and in the UK.
“However, we have not received anything from the British, while we are providing them,” von der Leyen added, asking “why we export millions of doses of vaccines to countries which produce vaccines themselves and they do not send them back to us.”
AstraZeneca is due to deliver 70 million doses of its anti-COVID vaccine in the second quarter, far fewer than the 180 million promised in the contract signed with the EU. In the first quarter, the EU is expected to have received a total of some 30 million doses, compared to 90 million planned by the Swedish-British pharmaceutical group.