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Europe moves toward stricter export controls on COVID-19 vaccines

Meeting of European Union leaders around a table and by video conference.
European Council President Charles Michel, second from the left, talks to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez by video conference Wednesday.
(Stephanie Lecocq / Pool Photo)

The European Union is moving toward stricter export controls to ensure that there are more COVID-19 vaccine doses for the bloc in order to boost its flagging vaccination drive as another coronavirus wave sweeps across the continent.

On the eve of a summit of the 27 member nations’ leaders, the EU’s executive body said Wednesday that it has a plan ready to guarantee that more vaccines produced in the bloc are available for its own citizens before they can be exported.

EU nations feel particularly hard done by Britain, which has received some 10 million doses from EU plants while, they say, nothing came back from British production sites. The EU now insists on reciprocity as it sees vaccination rates in Britain racing upward while the bloc’s vaccine rollout proceeds at a crawl.

The EU has been especially irked by Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca, which has two vaccine factories in EU territory.

Since the end of January, “some 10 million doses have been exported from the EU to the U.K., and zero doses have been exported from U.K. to the EU,” said EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis. “So it’s clear that we also need to look at those aspects of reciprocity and proportionality.”

The EU has been feuding with AstraZeneca for months in a dispute over exactly how many vaccine doses would be delivered by certain dates. Several vaccine producers, including Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca, were hit by production delays over the winter, just as worldwide demand for COVID-19 vaccines soared.

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“We have secured more than enough doses for the entire population. But we have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “Every day counts.”

Von der Leyen said the EU has approved the export of some 41 million vaccine doses to 33 countries in the last six weeks and believes that it stands at the forefront of international vaccine-sharing efforts.

Under a less stringent export-control system in force so far, only one shipment in 381 has been barred. That was supposed to be sent to Australia, which has a very limited coronavirus outbreak compared to the third wave of infections that many EU nations are now facing. World Health Organization officials say new infections are rising across Europe after previously declining for six weeks.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sought to ease tensions, speaking by phone in the last few days to European leaders, including Von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron.

“We’re all fighting the same pandemic across the whole of the European continent,” Johnson told a news conference Tuesday evening.

“Vaccines are an international operation,” he said, adding that the U.K. would “continue to work with European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout. “We in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind of vaccines or vaccine materials.”


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