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As Europe threatens to curb vaccine exports to Britain and other countries, the post-Brexit rift widens

(Photo illustration by Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
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BERLIN — The European Commission introduced new limits on coronavirus vaccine exports Wednesday in a move that could widen the rift between the European Union and its former member state Britain.

Although the revised rules do not constitute an outright ban, they will make reciprocity, a country’s epidemiological situation and its vaccination rate key criteria for export approval.

Expected to be in place for at least six weeks, the curbs could have a particularly strong effect on Britain, which has received more than 10 million doses from plants inside the E.U. — more than any other non-E.U. destination — but has exported no vaccine back to the bloc. Britain now has one of Europe's lowest daily case numbers per capita, and it has at least partially vaccinated more than 40 percent of its population, compared with just 9 percent in Germany and France.

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

As it lags behind Britain and the United States in its vaccination campaign, the E.U. has experienced growing anger from its citizens and a resurgence of the virus that has forced new shutdowns. Officials lay much of the blame with British-Swedish vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca for failing to meet its production targets.

The path out of the pandemic is also being viewed as a critical post-Brexit test, pitting the 27-nation bloc’s communal approach against its former member’s go-it-alone model.

Britain's departure meant it could negotiate is own vaccine deals without having to worry about unity or equity. It did not spend as long as the E.U. did negotiating prices or sorting through liability questions.

E.U. officials have defended their approach, saying it ensured that member countries were not competing with one another and that poorer countries in the bloc were not left behind.

Officials have also cited the bloc's commitment to supplying other countries with doses produced within its territory, while Britain and the United States have not made such a pledge. Whereas more than 64 million doses had been distributed across E.U. member states and associated countries by the middle of this month, at least 41 million were exported outside the E.U.

“But open roads should run in both directions,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was quoted as saying in a release Wednesday.

During a parliamentary committee session Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked whether he would rule out retaliating against the E.U.

“Vaccines are the product of international cooperation,” he said, adding, “I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of medicines or ingredients for vaccines are sensible.”

Johnson implied that the E.U. could lose its status as a welcome home to Big Pharma if shipments were stopped.

“I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade or interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed,” he said.

Afterward, the British government and European Commission issued a joint statement saying, “We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important.”

The two sides said they would continue discussion about how to “ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship” and expand vaccine supplies.

“In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges,” the statement read.

European Council President Charles Michel called out Britain and the United States two weeks ago, saying they had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.”

The Biden administration has since announced its intention to send some doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — not yet approved for use in the United States — to Mexico and Canada.

Meanwhile, tensions between the E.U. and Britain have remained high, this week centering on doses produced at an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands. Both sides argue they should receive priority access.

An E.U. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic negotiations, said Wednesday the new criteria for vaccine exports are a way for the E.U. to “have a conversation with the U.K.” on vaccine “for the objective to not block exports but to force AstraZeneca to produce for both the U.K. and the E.U.” The official did not expect exports of the vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech to be affected, saying that “the company is respecting its contractual agreements with the European Union.”

European leaders are due to meet virtually Thursday to discuss further measures at a summit that will also be attended by President Biden. They are expected to endorse the revised export rules. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she is not in favor of a full ban, citing the risk that international supply chains could get disrupted as a result.

Until now, according to rules adopted in late January, E.U. members could deny vaccine export requests only if they deemed a company to be in violation of its contractual obligations. That clause has been activated once, by Italy, to halt the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia.

Italy blocks export of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, amid E.U. anger over delivery shortfalls

Extra scrutiny by E.U. and Italian officials led to questions Wednesday about 29 million doses at a finishing plant outside Rome.

AstraZeneca said 13 million were destined for lower-income countries through the Covax partnership and 16 million would be distributed to the E.U. later this month and next. “It is incorrect to describe this as a stockpile,” the company said in a statement. “The process of manufacturing vaccines is very complex and time consuming. In particular, vaccine doses must wait for quality control clearance after the filling of vials is completed.”

While Europe’s vaccine rollout has been unexpectedly slow, the E.U. goal is to vaccinate 70 percent of adults in the bloc by the end of the summer.

People in low-income countries could be waiting until 2024.

Johnson took heat Wednesday for reportedly telling Conservative lawmakers that “capitalism” and “greed” were behind the success of the British rollout.

“The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends,” Johnson said, according to the Sun news outlet. He was speaking on Zoom to a group of Conservative lawmakers.

Unnamed government sources told various British media outlets that the comments were off the cuff and not about the argument with Brussels over vaccine supply. The Sun said Johnson told lawmakers on the Zoom call “I regret saying it” and “Forget I said that.”

To many scientists and public health experts, the remarks rang uncomfortably true, since wealthy countries have sapped up most of the vaccine doses and vaccine producers have opposed a push to waive intellectual property rights that could make it easier for developing nations to manufacture their own supplies.

Adam reported from London, and Ariès reported from Brussels. Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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