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European Commission officials on Monday reiterated a barrage of vague threats to block exports of coronavirus vaccines, but were unable to explain what specifically they were planning to do, when they were planning to do it or how it would lead really to the injection of more doses into the arms of European citizens.
So after another day of many more questions than answers about the EU’s slow vaccination campaign, only that was clear: the continuation of the stumble in Brussels was not going to stop the grumbling of citizens and national leaders of the EU before a virtual European Council. summit Thursday.
The threats from the Commission, which President Ursula von der Leyen first made last week, are theoretically directed at the UK – the only vaccine-producing country that has received doses produced on the European continent, but , in the opinion of all, does not export any. locally produced.
The British government – and the British people – have reacted angrily to the EU’s saber-rattling, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has contacted his European counterparts to try to avoid any further restrictive measures that could put pressure on him to quit ‘he replies. Some allies are already urging him to hold back his fire, even if the EU takes action, to avoid starting a trade war that could disrupt delicate supply chains.
But, for the moment at least, the Commission has held its fire.
“Listen, we’re not going to speculate on the actual tools or details of what we might suggest to achieve the goals,” Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said. “Our problem is indeed the underperformance, the underdelivery of vaccines compared to what’s in our contracts with these companies and that’s the problem we want to solve – how to make sure that the companies deliver to the EU in accordance with the contract. ”
But while Mamer, speaking at the regular midday press conference, referred to several companies, the Commission’s anger at the moment is only aimed at one: AstraZeneca, which has tens of millions of doses. behind what she promised to deliver.
To remedy this deficit, the Commission is considering the possibility of restricting exports of AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in a factory in the Netherlands managed by a subcontractor, Halix. And on Monday, Dutch officials said they would cooperate with a Commission decision to ban such exports.
But it’s unclear if that might even help. Home Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, the EU’s man-point on increasing vaccine production, previously said the Halix factory did not ship doses to the UK, although this may have changed.
As a separate complication, the European Medicines Agency has yet to authorize the Halix plant to manufacture vaccines for the EU. The snafu appears to be a technical oversight which was as much the fault of the Commission for not insisting that AstraZeneca request such authorization as the fault of the company for not having done so. That approval is now underway, Mamer said.
Mamer repeatedly insisted throughout Monday’s press conference that the Commission’s goals were simply to force vaccine manufacturers to follow EU purchasing agreements and achieve ‘reciprocity. From other vaccine-producing countries receiving EU-made doses – again, namely the UK.
He defined reciprocity as the export of either finished vaccine doses or raw materials needed to manufacture vaccines.
At the same time, he confirmed that even though the Commission blocks exports, it currently does not have the legal authority to seize unshipped vaccines and reuse them for EU countries. Such a move would require additional emergency measures and risk violating World Trade Organization rules, as well as further undermining the EU’s reputation as a champion of rules-based international free trade.
“This is not about banning vaccine exports,” Mamer said. “It’s about making sure that we are able to receive the vaccines planned for Europe.”
Journalists and some national officials still wondered how the Commission would actually guarantee delivery of the expected vaccines, which it has not yet been able to do with AstraZeneca. So far, the Commission has blocked only one shipment with support from Italy – of AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia. On Monday, Mamer said the Commission did not know what happened to the 250,000 blocked doses and referred questions to the company.
EU leaders are due to discuss the issue of vaccine exports at their videoconference summit on Thursday. But since they don’t meet in person, they can’t make an immediate formal decision.
There has been speculation that executives, who are under increasing political pressure due to slow vaccinations, may want to expand export bans to focus not only on AstraZeneca, but also on BioNTech / Pfizer, Moderna and potentially other producers who have so far honored their contractual commitments to the EU.
Such a move would attract not only the wrath of companies but also other countries, including partners like Canada, Australia and Mexico, which buy vaccines from European manufacturers.
In issuing his new threats last week, von der Leyen presented a rationale for blocking exports more broadly – a move which, while controversial, could actually drive up vaccination rates in the EU. Coincidentally, it could also give Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union party a boost in a super election year.
But other EU countries have said they will oppose such an aggressive move, warning that von der Leyen’s inflammatory approach is jeopardizing the EU’s reputation in an attempt to perform in front of an audience. German.
“I feel more and more like we are all part… of a German electoral coin,” said one European diplomat.
Two EU diplomats said only France and Italy were clearly in favor of a broader export ban, while Germany’s position remained unclear. And France was the only country to openly support this new high-risk approach.
“I support the announcements made by the President of the Commission … in particular to demand reciprocity,” President Emmanuel Macron said last week.
Officials from countries like Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands have spoken out against blocking vaccine exports from companies that were fulfilling their contracts.
With EU countries divided and leaders meeting virtually, it seemed unlikely that a resolution to the debate would be found this week.
Meanwhile, European Council President Charles Michel’s previous effort to challenge the UK to reveal how many doses it exported seemed forgotten amid the noise of threats from the Commission – not to mention warnings of London on the possibility of a damaging trade war.
Emilio Casalicchio and Anna Isaac and contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICOPremium Police Service from: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharmacy and more, our specialist journalists keep you up to date on the topics driving the health policy agenda. E-mail [email protected] for a free trial.