Europe’s vaccine solidarity was boosted on Friday after France said it could emulate Italy’s move to block coronavirus vaccine exports outside the European Union if it is needed to enforce the bloc’s own agreements with pharmaceutical manufacturers.
The European Union defended the Italian authorities’ decision to stop a large shipment of doses intended for Australia as part of a long-running battle with the pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca and Germany.
The EU’s executive said the decision was not directed at Australia but had been taken to ensure AstraZeneca delivers the number of doses it has committed to send to EU countries.
“The fact is that the European Union is a major exporter of vaccine doses,” said Eric Mamer, the European Commission’s chief spokesman.
In the face of dose shortages during the early stages of the vaccine campaign, the EU announced in early January an export control mechanism stopping deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines outside the block in an attempt to force companies to honor their contractual obligations to the block first.
Since the mechanism entered into force on 30 January, the Commission has said that 174 approvals of vaccine exports to 30 different countries outside the EU have been approved.
The EU has been particularly angry at AstraZeneca because it delivers far fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised. Of the first order of 80 million doses to the EU in the first quarter, the company will struggle to deliver only half of that quantity.
There were rumors that AstraZeneca was diverting from EU production facilities to other nations, but CEO Pascal Soriot insisted that all deficits would be blamed solely on technical production issues.
The EU has only vaccinated 8% of the population compared to over 30%, for example in the UK. Australia is still very much at the beginning of its vaccination.
“We believe that this vaccine is an important part of our portfolio and we therefore expect delivery of the agreed doses,” said Mamer. “We work with companies to ensure that they deliver the doses planned for the EU. For all the companies that do that, there are no problems with exports. ”
Signs of division in the EU
As deliveries of serum are still scarce in the region of 27 countries in the event of delays in supply and production issues, European countries have recently shown signs of fragmentation. Several countries have expressed their frustration over the slow expansion of doses and are looking for extra supplies of vaccines outside the EU’s joint procurement.
But Italy’s decision to block the transport of more than 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca destined for Australia closed the road between Member States. French Health Minister Olivier Véran said he “understood” the Italian government’s decision and said France “could do the same”.
“Believe me, the more doses I have, the happier I am as Minister of Health,” Véran said in an interview with the BFMTV channel, adding that France and its European partners are determined to get their contracts with pharmaceutical manufacturers executed.
Italy’s objections focused both on the general shortage of supplies in the EU and on “the delays in AstraZeneca’s delivery of vaccines to the EU and Italy,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Italy said it had informed the company on Tuesday. AstraZeneca declined to comment.
The German government also justified the EU’s role in research, development and production of vaccines and also justified the export restriction.
“In general, vaccine exports will not be stopped as long as contracts with the EU are complied with,” said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert. “Many vaccines go from the EU to third countries, while nothing or almost nothing is exported from the US and the UK.”
Earlier, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said it was generally right for the EU to ensure that vaccine manufacturers followed up on promised deliveries. But he also said it was important for EU-wide coordination of export restrictions.
The EU believed it had properly prepared for the deployment of vaccines to its 450 million people. It has signed deals for six different vaccines. In total, it has ordered up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and sealed agreements with other companies for more than two billion shots.
But only 33 million doses have been given so far and only 11 million Europeans have been fully vaccinated. Despite the current difficulties, the EU’s target is still to vaccinate 70% of the adult population in the block by the end of the summer.
The Italian Government’s move marked the first use of the export control system and it has frustrated the Australian Government, which is seeking assurances from the EU’s executive that future shipments of vaccines will not be blocked.
“Currently, the world is in uncharted territory. It is not surprising that some countries would tear up the rulebook, Australian Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News Australia on Friday. However, Birmingham acknowledged that Australia had received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week, and “it will see our current distribution plan work”.
( Jowharwith AP)