Politics

EU could block millions of Covid vaccine doses from entering UK


Millions of doses of vaccines could be blocked from entering Britain from the EU within days, as part of Brussels’ response to a shortage of doses among its member states.

The European commission said a new authorisation mechanism would be established to give national regulators the power to refuse vaccine exports. The development will raise concerns over the continued flow of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for which the UK has a 40m-dose order.

“There is a possibility on certain circumstances not to allow the export to come forward,” an official conceded.

Should the UK become reliant on home-produced vaccines, the achievement of herd immunity through the vaccination of 75% of the population could be pushed back by nearly two months, according to analysis by the data analytics firm Airfinity.

The 27 EU member states were devastated by the announcement last week by the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca that it would have to cut deliveries of its Covid-19 vaccine to the bloc by 60% in the first quarter of the year, citing production problems.

With national vaccine rollout plans in tatters, and AstraZeneca refusing to divert doses made at sites in Oxford and Staffordshire to the EU, Brussels has been seeking other means of securing its supply. Officials said they hoped there would be no need for export bans but conceded that a block on the export of vaccines such as those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech in Belgium for the UK was possible.

The British government’s decision to block the export of certain coronavirus medicines was cited by an EU official as a reason for Brussels to protect itself from acts of protectionism around the world.

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 EU health commissioner dismisses AstraZeneca contract argument – video
EU health commissioner dismisses AstraZeneca contract argument – video

“In an ideal world, we would not be here in an ideal world, the whole story of vaccination would run smoothly without any problems. But unfortunately we are not in an ideal world, and we have seen over the last weeks that not all works well,” the official said. “And we have seen that when it comes to the shortage of vaccines, when it comes to the export of vaccines that there are obviously deficiencies, we have to look at, we have to monitor, and we have to tackle.

“That’s why, and given the circumstances around with certain states around the world, even in our neighbourhood, acting in terms of restrictions of exports, even banning exports for certain products, I think we need to be upfront, and we need to react.”

The criteria for blocking exports will be published on Friday, with adoption of the mechanism expected within the coming days.

The extraordinary development came as Belgian regulators were sent in to AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine production site near Brussels at the request of the Ecommission. A first visit by officials from the Belgian federal medicines agency was completed on Wednesday at the site in Seneffe, Hainaut, the health ministry in Belgium said. Samples and records were taken from the plant, and a further inspection of the facility is expected in the coming days.

The investigation was requested by the EU’s executive branch owing to doubts over AstraZeneca’s explanation for its expected shortfall in deliveries. While deliveries to the EU have been put in doubt, AstraZeneca has been able to assure Downing Street that it will be able to produce 2m doses a week for the UK in order to fulfil an order of 100m jabs. The vaccine was authorised by the UK regulator in December.

The commission wants to know whether doses produced on EU territory have been diverted to the UK in recent weeks.

A spokesperson for the Belgian health ministry said Wednesday’s inspection at the AstraZeneca plant in Seneffe, 25 miles (40km) south of Brussels, had been conducted to “make sure that the delivery delay is indeed due to a production problem on the Belgian site”.

The Belgian site owned by the French life-sciences company Novasep.
The Belgian site owned by the French life sciences company Novasep. Photograph: Novasep

The inspection was “was conducted in full transparency and objectivity”, the spokesperson said. “Belgian experts are now examining the elements that were collected, together with experts from the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.” A report on the findings is expected to take “a few days”.

On Wednesday the EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said millions of doses made in the UK should be transported to the EU, rejecting the argument that the British government had first claim as a consequence of having signed a contract three months before Brussels.

“We reject the logic of first come, first served,” the commissioner said. “That may work in a butcher’s shop but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”

The company said it had not offered any certainty that it would be able to deliver 100m doses to the EU in the first quarter of this year. The company has said it agreed to make “best efforts” given the vagaries of producing the vaccine and its other contractual obligations.

A spokesperson for AstraZeneca said: “Each supply chain was developed with input and investment from specific countries or international organisations based on the supply agreements, including our agreement with the European commission. As each supply chain has been set up to meet the needs of a specific agreement, the vaccine produced from any supply chain is dedicated to the relevant countries or regions and makes use of local manufacturing wherever possible.”

On Thursday the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, said the UK would only help the EU with doses if there were spare vials. “We will want to talk to and with our friends in Europe to see how we can help,” he said. “But the really important thing is to make sure our own vaccination programme proceeds precisely as planned.”

Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said he feared “at least another 10 tough weeks” of shortages. “Making vaccines is very complex, and there can be a need for building work to increase capacity that leads to delays,” Spahn said on NDR radio. “But then it has to impact everyone in the same way and not just the EU.”

The EU is investing €336m (£297m) in AstraZeneca in return for 400m doses of its vaccine. Not all of the money has been paid to the pharmaceutical company and EU lawyers are examining whether there has been a breach of contract.



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