The European Union’s envoy to the UK has denied allegations that the bloc was promoting “vaccine nationalism” with its control over shipments of COVID jabs.
Speaking to Britain’s ITV on Wednesday evening, EU Ambassador João Vale de Almeida “completely” refuted the accusation “that the EU is protectionist or has engaged in vaccine nationalism”.
Last week, Italy asked the EU’s executive body to block the delivery of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia, with European Commission President Von der Leyen later signalling that this was not “a one-off” move.
COVID War (of Words)
Vale de Almeida’s words have echoed an earlier written statement from European Council President Charles Michel, who said in a letter published Tuesday that he “was shocked” by “accusations of ‘vaccine nationalism’ against the European Union” and instead blamed London and Washington for imposing protectionist measures.
“The facts do not lie,” Michel said. “The UK and the US have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.”
His letter prompted an angry response from London.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the Michel’s allegation has been “completely false”.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson later continued the rebuke to the House of Commons: the UK has “not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine components”.
“This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms,” the prime minister added.
Vale de Almeida said on Wednesday that his heated exchange with British officials over the vaccine exports had “put transparency on the table”.
"Vaccine producers can only be held to their commitments to supply doses if countries are transparent about exports," the envoy said. "This is why we support greater transparency ... it is important that we know what is going on."
What’s Inside the UK-EU Vaccine Export Row?
In January, the European Union effectively introduced vaccine export controls to prevent pharma giants from shipping precious doses outside the bloc without Brussels’ approval. The move was explained by the need to ensure that the vaccine producers first meet their contractual obligations with the bloc before exporting vaccine elsewhere over an expected shortfall from AstraZeneca, a vaccine manufacturer.
The measure was criticised as an effective export ban, but the EU defended the decision, signalling that it was the responsibility of producers to ensure that they meet the target set for demand. British officials, who have a separate contract with AstraZeneca for the delivery of 100 million COVID jabs, slammed the resolution – many of doses administered to UK citizens come from the company’s factory in the EU.
More than a third of the UK’s population has now received a first dose of the COVID vaccine, in comparison to less than 10% of the EU population.
Britain has never worded an outright ban on the vaccine shipments but POLITICO notes that London has been clever in drawing up contracts with producers in such a way that forces the companies to first meet their obligations with the British supply chain on the agreed number of jabs – even if they need to be pulled out from elsewhere. The EU, it says, has not been so careful about these nuances.
The bloc is lagging behind the UK significantly in its vaccine rollout – both because of logistics, poor management and a shortfall of jabs. For example, AstraZeneca so far has supplied only 10% of the vaccine amount the EU ordered for the period from December to March, equal to a shortfall of nearly 90 million doses.
Meanwhile, one diplomat reportedly briefed by the EU Commission revealed to POLITICO that over 8 million doses made in the EU were sent to the UK after 24.7 million were greenlighted for export by the block’s management.
Ongoing Spat Following Brexit…
The vaccine export issue has been exacerbated by problems resulting from Britain’s departure from the European Union, as Northern Ireland has remained a part of the bloc’s customs union.
Brussels has feared this would allow Britain to get the EU-made vaccine jabs through the backdoor and made a short-lived attempt in January to prevent this with a harshly-grilled legislation coming directly from Von der Leyen. The proposal didn’t stand up to scrutiny as it had effectively set a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, prompting a backlash from London, Belfast and Dublin.
Now Britain has unilaterally moved to extend grace periods in Irish Sea to prevent checks on goods coming between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which has also been criticised by EU leaders.