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E.U. denies vaccine nationalism charge, accuses U.S. and U.K. of not sharing

People wait Tuesday for coronavirus vaccinations at the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN — The European Union is defending itself against accusations of vaccine nationalism, highlighting its role in producing coronavirus vaccines for export and calling out the United States and Britain for not similarly sharing with the world.

The E.U. came under heavy criticism after member Italy blocked the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia last week, citing coronavirus vaccine shortages and delayed supplies to the bloc.

But now the E.U. is emphasizing that just one shipment was held back, while 257 others have gone out.

A European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share the information publicly, said Wednesday that the bloc had approved the export of more than 34 million coronavirus vaccine doses since late January. Britain was the biggest recipient of those exports, with more than 9 million doses, followed by Canada, which got nearly 4 million, and Mexico, which received more than 3 million. The bloc approved the export of more than 950,000 doses to the United States.

European Council President Charles Michel also noted on Tuesday that most of the doses deployed in Israel's world-leading vaccination program came from Belgium.

He contrasted the European approach with that in the United States and Britain, which he singled out for having "imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory."

Michel’s comments drew a fierce response from the British government on Wednesday.

“Let me be clear: We have not blocked the export of a single covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson, adding that “we oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms.”

Britain’s Foreign Ministry summoned a top E.U. official over the spat on Wednesday.

The E.U., the United States and Britain have all invested heavily in coronavirus vaccine research and development. They are also key backers of Covax, a program co-led by the World Health Organization that primarily aims to secure equitable access to vaccines for poorer nations. President Biden last month pledged $4 billion to the program over the next years — more than any other nation has vowed to donate.

Still, high-income countries have so far bought up the majority of available vaccine doses, purchasing 55 percent of coronavirus vaccine supplies worldwide, even though they represent only 16 percent of the global population, according to data collected by Duke University.

Some poorer nations may still have to wait years for sufficient supplies.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the E.U.’s accusation.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that Biden "has made clear that he is focused on ensuring that vaccines are accessible to every American" and is not considering sharing vaccines with Mexico at this point.

Neither of the two U.S. neighbors have so far been able to secure deliveries from U.S.-based facilities. In addition to what they have received from Europe, Mexico has ordered vaccines developed in Russia and China, whereas Canada purchased AstraZeneca doses produced in India and requested doses from the Covax program.

The Italian block on the Australia shipment reflected concerns that British-Swedish company AstraZeneca is shortchanging the E.U. to fulfill its contracts with other nations. It was the first time an E.U. member made use of new rules introduced in January that require manufacturers to ask permission before exporting doses outside of the bloc — a rule imposed as AstraZeneca and other suppliers said they would not meet their pledges for the first part of the year.

The tense exchanges between London and Brussels this week are a sign of the stakes involved in vaccine diplomacy around the globe. But they are also an indication of strained relations between Britain and the 27-nation bloc it was formerly part of. On both sides, the vaccine rollout is being seen as a critical post-Brexit test, pitting Britain’s go-it-alone approach against the E.U.’s communal model.

In Britain, the latest European remarks have been widely perceived as an E.U. effort to distract from the bloc’s woes. Even as Brussels and European capitals cry foul over bearing the brunt of supply chain issues from manufacturers and point to continued exports, sluggish vaccination programs in many European countries mean millions of delivered doses haven’t been used.

The E.U.’s most populous member state, Germany, has administered just over 8 million vaccine doses but still has a backlog of 4.3 million doses in storage, according to government figures.

While officials have said that some are being saved for second doses, vaccination rollouts in a number of areas have been mired by confusion. Some vaccination centers have said they have been forced to turn away some people with appointments because they weren’t eligible. Others who are eligible say they’ve been unable to secure them.

Not helping matters was an initial decision by several European countries to not recommend the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine — which doesn’t require hyper-cold storage and can be administered through doctor’s offices — for people older than 65. Even after the reversal of that decision in Germany, millions of elderly people in the highest-risk group are still to be vaccinated, according to media reports.

Germany will only roll out vaccines in doctor’s offices nationwide in April, whereas Britain started offering AstraZeneca jabs through its general practitioners in January.

Ariès reported from Brussels. Emily Rauhala in Washington contributed to this report.