UK and EU move to calm tensions over access to jabs

Bizar Male

The UK and EU have moved to calm tensions over access to coronavirus vaccinations despite a top Brussels policymaker accusing the UK of “vaccine nationalism” in its pandemic response.

Britain and the European Commission on Wednesday issued a joint statement saying there had been discussions on developing a “reciprocally beneficial relationship” to tackle Covid-19.

The statement committed both sides to work together “to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens”. Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, insisted that he did not want to see a tit-for-tat vaccine war.

Britain has offered to help boost production of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Halix plant in the Dutch city of Leiden, and Downing Street has not ruled out the UK “giving up” some of the millions of doses it claims have been contracted to it. The EU also claims the vaccines.

But Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, said the EU would be making a serious mistake if it started blocking vaccine exports to the UK, including shipments of AstraZeneca doses made in the Netherlands.

“I believe that free trading nations follow the law of contracts,” he told the Financial Times. Referring to the EU’s AstraZeneca contract, he said: “They have a ‘best efforts’ contract and we have an exclusivity deal.”

He said both sides were looking to resolve the dispute and that talks were “co-operative, practical and collaborative”. But he added: “Our contract trumps theirs. It’s called contract law — it’s very straightforward.”

Hancock said that, in future, life sciences companies would base themselves in Britain, not in a protectionist EU: “In the UK you can export anywhere in the world — we’re never going to put a stop to that.”

However, Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, said the UK needed to recognise how dependent it was on EU vaccines and display greater “reciprocity” in its dealings.

UK prime Minister Boris Johnson at an Oxford BioMedica facility
UK prime minister Boris Johnson, left, speaks with Laurence Wilkinson, a warehouse supervisor during a January visit to Oxford BioMedica, where the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is being made © Heathcliff O’Malley/Pool/AFP/Getty

“We have a feeling that the vaccine nationalism is really on the other side of the Channel,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. Despite the EU’s “solidarity” with British citizens, he added: “We are not seeing any vaccines in the UK arriving here.” 

Breton piled pressure on AstraZeneca, saying he wanted explanations for why the company had been so much more successful in meeting its commitments to Britain than to Brussels. 

The comments came as EU leaders prepared to discuss at a European Council meeting on Thursday controversial new rules aimed at tightening restrictions on vaccine exports. The new rules aim to clamp down on exports to countries that are failing to share their production of vaccines. 

Breton is leading the commission’s effort to bolster vaccine production in the EU as Brussels seeks to recover from massive AstraZeneca delivery shortfalls in the first quarter of the year. London and Brussels have been in talks over how to handle their conflicting claims to deliveries of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.

Breton made it clear that he was optimistic about second-quarter vaccine deliveries in the EU, but that he had yet to receive satisfactory explanations for the “big disappointment” in AstraZeneca deliveries to the EU in the first three months of the year. 

While the company was delivering 100 per cent of what it promised the UK in the first quarter, it was expected to ship only about a quarter of what it pledged to the EU, Breton said. 

He argued that if AstraZeneca had fully met its promises to the EU the bloc would have been far better positioned to match the UK’s vaccination rate. He complained that he had not received consistent explanations for what was going on from AstraZeneca. The company has said it is making “best efforts” to increase supply, as required in its contract it signed with the commission in August.

Breton backed the proposed tightening of the vaccine export rules pushed by commission president Ursula von der Leyen, saying that the UK was “heavily dependent” on the EU and this needed to be properly reflected in the two sides’ dealings on vaccines. 

The proposed export rules have triggered a backlash among EU member states, however, as some northern capitals worry that the tighter export restrictions risk damaging the EU’s reputation as a reliable player in the global medical supply chain. 

AstraZeneca is likely to deliver a maximum of 30m doses by the end of March, compared with up to 120m targeted in the contract signed by the company and the European Commission in August.

If the EU had received and administered the initially expected supply of AstraZeneca doses it would have lifted it from 13.6 jabs per 100 residents to roughly 36, according to extrapolation from FT vaccine tracker data. That would put it around the US’s 38.7 but still behind the UK’s 45.9. 

Breton did not dispute AstraZeneca’s statement that 29m doses identified at a factory in Italy after a commission-ordered inspection were destined for the EU and the Covax international vaccine initiative aimed mainly at lower-income countries. Commission questions over the fate of the production had highlighted the breakdown in its relations with AstraZeneca.

Video: Covid-19 and the business of vaccines

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