The World Health Organization (W.H.O) has criticized the European Union’s (EU) announcement of export controls on COVID vaccines produced within the bloc, W.H.O said that these types of measures risked drag out the pandemic.
It was a “very worrying trend” saying by W.H.O vice head Mariangela Simao, but the EU introduced the measure amid a row with vaccine manufacturers over delivery shortfalls.
On the other hand, W.H.O chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “vaccine nationalism” could lead to a “protracted recovery”.
Vaccine hoarding would “keep the pandemic burning and slow global economic recovery” in addition to being a “catastrophic moral failure” that could further widen global inequality while talking about the Davos Agenda a virtual version of the global summit he said.
European Union doing
“The protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no choice but to act,” the European Commission said.
The controls will affect some 100 countries worldwide including the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia - but many others, including poorer nations, are exempt.
The so-called transparency mechanism gives EU countries powers to deny authorization for vaccine exports if the company making them hasn’t honored existing contracts with the EU.
However, the EU has been forced to backtrack on plans to impose restrictions on the export of vaccines across the border on the island of Ireland after an outcry from Dublin and London.
The EU insists its controls are a temporary scheme, not an export ban.
Why is this happening now?
The news comes with the EU in a very public dispute with drug-maker AstraZeneca over supplies, and under growing pressure over the slow pace of vaccine distribution.
Earlier on Friday, the Commission made public a confidential contract with AstraZeneca, the UK-Swedish company behind the Oxford vaccine, to bolster its argument that the firm has been failing to fulfill its promises to deliver to the bloc.
Under the new rule, vaccine firms will have to seek permission before supplying doses beyond the EU. Its 27 member states will be able to vet those export applications.
Vaccines produced by Pfizer in Belgium are currently being exported to the UK, and the EU insists that some of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in England is destined under contract for EU citizens.
The EU is also in a supply dispute with Pfizer, which is set to fall short of the contracted vaccine volume for the EU by the end of March. Pfizer says the reason for that is the urgent expansion of its facility in Puurs, Belgium.
AstraZeneca’s shortfall to the EU is expected to be about 60% in the first quarter of 2021.
As the export controls were announced, the EU medicines regulator, the EMA, gave authorization for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be used in over-18s.
Exempt from the export controls
The EU is allowing some 92 exemptions from the export control regime, including vaccine donations to Covax, the global scheme to help poorer countries; and exports to Switzerland, countries in the western Balkans, Norway and North Africa.
Other Mediterranean countries such as Lebanon and Israel are also exempt.
Explaining the export measures, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a news conference they would ensure that all EU citizens had access to vaccines and that all parties played by the rules.
“This approach is built on trust, transparency, and responsibility,” she said.
However, the WHO’s emergency director Michael Ryan said the disputes between wealthy nations over vaccines were concerning given that health workers and high-risk populations in other parts of the world faced a long wait for any vaccines at all.
“It looks like fighting over the cake when they don’t even have access to the crumbs,” he said.
The EU is contracted to receive the following vaccine doses:
- AstraZeneca - 400m
- Sanofi-GSK - 300m
- Johnson and Johnson - 400m
- Pfizer-BioNTech - 600m
- CureVac - 405m
- Moderna - 160m
Pressure grows as nations grow impatient
The BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler says some EU governments are beginning to show impatience with Brussels, which had hoped its vaccination purchasing scheme would be a beacon of European solidarity and strength.
The Commission’s labored negotiating process, the tardy approval of vaccines by the EU’s medical regulator, and delays now in vaccine deliveries have left EU citizens demanding answers and action, our correspondent says.
Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier and Germany’s possible future chancellor, told ZDF television on Friday that it was his impression that the commission “ordered too late, and the only bet on a few companies, they agreed on a price in a typically bureaucratic EU procedure and completely underestimated the fundamental importance of the situation.”
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter that he “had hoped not to see [the European Union] leading the world down the destructive path of vaccine nationalism”.
“Our continent’s entire history of success has been one of the open global value chains,” he added.
The politics of vaccines in the EU
Earlier this week the EU indicated this proposal was coming down the track. It would be a “notification system” an official said. Nothing more than a way of showing transparency.
That has now turned into an export control policy, partly because of Germany’s insistence that EU governments should be the ones to decide whether EU-based companies can export vaccines elsewhere.
EU officials tell me that it’s also been partly triggered by the deep suspicion of the “vague justification” given by AstraZeneca this week when their chief executive insisted that the production problem was down to “lower productivity” at its Belgian plant.
This new system of export control could well affect British vaccine deliveries.
Pfizer currently dispatches doses from the Puurs site here to the UK. In the future, Pfizer would have to fill in an export form and wait up to 48 hours for their export request to be accepted or rejected by the Belgian government.
That decision would be based on whether the company could prove that taking that batch of vaccine to the UK would not affect the existing EU agreement.