Covid-19: EU leaders to discuss boosting vaccine supplies

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EU leaders are to hold virtual talks to discuss ways of boosting Covid vaccine supplies and improving the rollout of doses across the 27-nation bloc.

The European Commission will on Thursday ask leaders to support plans for added controls on vaccine exports, which could affect supply to the UK. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier warned against imposing “blockades”.

The virtual summit comes as the third wave of coronavirus infections sweeps across much of mainland Europe. US President Joe Biden will also dial into the talks later on Thursday to discuss EU-US relations.

The European Union’s vaccine rollout campaign has been slower than that of the UK. The European Commission has blamed pharmaceutical companies – primarily AstraZeneca – for not delivering the promised doses to the EU. However, leaders are divided over proposals for new restrictions on vaccine exports out of the bloc, which would aim to boost supplies within the EU.

A site in Belgium produces the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and another in the Netherlands is expected to increase supplies of the jab in the EU. Brussels has said that of the more than 40 million doses exported from the EU over the past two months, a quarter was sent to the UK. In a joint statement on Wednesday, the UK and the EU said they wanted to “create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all”. “We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes co-operation between the EU and UK even more important,” the statement added.

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Analysis box by Katya Adler, Europe editor

The tone of Wednesday’s EU-UK statement was positive, but actual progress between the two sides was described to me by an EU diplomat as “slow, cumbersome and difficult”. On both sides. That doesn’t mean impossible, but at their summit on Thursday, some EU leaders – along with the European Commission – will still be pushing for tougher controls on vaccine exports. And they could hit the UK.

EU insiders say they had hoped never to use the controls. They say they want them as a means of exerting pressure on vaccine companies and on countries with vaccine production sites that are not exporting to the EU. Meanwhile, leaders are coming under increasing pressure to show voters they are taking action to ramp up both the supply of jabs and their vaccine rollout, on both of which they are trailing behind the UK.

While there have been suggestions that the proposals being put before EU leaders on Thursday would be focused on the UK and US in particular, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that this was not the case. “We’re dealing with a pandemic and this is not seeking to punish any countries,” he said.

Asked whether the UK might retaliate, Mr. Johnson told MPs he did not believe “that blockades of either vaccine or of medicines, of ingredients for vaccines” would be “sensible”. Companies might draw conclusions about future investments “in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed”, he added.

Chart showing the number of doses administered in the UK, US, EU, China and Russia
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What is EU planning?

The tougher export controls are most likely to affect vaccine-exporting countries that have higher vaccination rates than the EU, such as the UK and US. The key criteria for the proposed regulations are “reciprocity” and “proportionality”:

  • The EU says there is no reciprocity if a country importing vaccines from the EU restricts exports itself either by law or other means, so “it may be appropriate to consider whether exports to this country are justified”
  • Member states and the Commission will also consider the epidemiological situation in that non-EU country, its vaccination rate, and existing availability of Covid-19 vaccines

There will be no outright export bans, which are opposed by countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium. Vaccine manufacturers would be assessed to see if they were fulfilling their contract with the EU, although no specific algorithm is planned.

Is the UK being targeted?

In an interview with the BBC, the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton insisted the bloc’s issues were with AstraZeneca and not the UK government. “I know that there’s some tension… but as long as we have transparency, I think [relations] will be able to be normalized,” he said.

He said if AstraZeneca had provided the agreed 120 million doses to the EU, member states would have been at the same rate of vaccination as the UK: “We have been heavily penalized and we just want to understand why”. AstraZeneca denies that it is failing to honor its contract with the EU.

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