The European Commission has proposed tighter controls on COVID-19 vaccine exports to the U.K. and other countries with better vaccination rates, as it looks to speed up its own lagging inoculation program.
The new measures make it easier for European Union member states to ban vaccine exports to other countries, introducing fresh criteria.
Under the proposals, member states should consider whether the destination country’s epidemiological situation and vaccination rate is “better or worse than the EU’s” before authorizing exports. Whether the country exports vaccines should also be considered. EU countries and the Commission will also assess whether exports pose a threat to the bloc’s own vaccine supply.
The 92 low- and middle-income countries set to receive supplies as part of the Covax program will be exempt, the Commission said.
EC President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU currently exports vaccines at large scale to dozens of countries, but warned that “open roads should run in both directions.”
“The EU has an excellent portfolio of different vaccines and we have secured more than enough doses for the entire population. But we have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens,” she said.
Von der Leyen said Europe was being hit by a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and that “not every company is delivering on its contract.” While she didn’t mention AstraZeneca
by name, the EU is embroiled in a continuing dispute with the U.K.-Swedish drug company over vaccine supply.
AstraZeneca warned in January that it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its delivery obligations to the EU, due to manufacturing issues at some of its European plants. The shortfall in deliveries led to a high-profile row with the EU, which has lagged behind countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Israel in rolling out vaccine shots for its healthcare workers and most vulnerable people.
AstraZeneca has consistently said that it wasn’t legally required to deliver to the EU on a precise timetable, because it had only committed to supplying vaccines under a “best-effort” clause.
Last week, von der Leyen threatened to use emergency powers to curb exports, as she pointed out the EU has allowed for 41 million doses to be sent to 33 countries since early February. She said that AstraZeneca has overpromised and underdelivered on its contract with the EU, though the same can’t be said for other vaccine makers Pfizer–BioNTech
The tightening of export rules is a further setback for AstraZeneca, after some countries temporarily suspended the use of the vaccine over concerns about blood clots in some recipients. Several countries restarted their inoculation campaigns after the European Medicines Agency last week declared the vaccine “safe and effective” after its own investigation found no link to blood clots.
AstraZeneca has said its own review of safety data of more than 17 million people vaccinated in the U.K. and EU had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday AstraZeneca was accused by U.S. health officials of including “outdated information” in a study of its vaccine. AstraZeneca promised to share updated data with the U.S. authorities within 48 hours.