Britain has been singled out for failing to export Covid vaccines to the EU as Brussels empowered officials to prohibit shipments of doses to countries where a large part of the population has been vaccinated.
Valdis Dombrovskis, a European commission vice-president, said the commission was revising its export authorisation mechanism in order to “ensure vaccination of our own population”.
Under the revised regulation, countries with a high level of vaccination coverage or those that restrict exports through law or their contracts with suppliers now risk having shipments prohibited.
The UK does not have a an export ban in legislation but the government signed a contract with AstraZeneca that obliges the Anglo-Swedish company to deliver doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire to Britain first.
The UK also appears to fall foul of the new criteria on vaccination coverage, with 45% of residents having been administered the jab compared with 13% across the 27 member states of the EU.
Dombrovskis said: “Our export authorisation mechanism is not addressed at any specific country. But it is clear that you need to ensure vaccination of our own population. We are in a sense behind. And if you look at the same time, despite the fact that EU is one of the global hotspots of the pandemic, the EU is also the largest exporter of vaccines.
“Just since the introduction of the export authorisation [in January] some 10m doses have been exported from the EU to the UK and zero doses have been exported from the UK to the EU. So, if we discuss reciprocity, solidarity and say global responsibility, it is clear that we also need to look at those aspects of reciprocity and proportionality”
The EU has suffered from a major supply shortfall of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine owing to a yield problem at a plant in Belgium and the company’s subsequent refusal to divert doses made in the UK.
The EU is threatening to block the export to the UK of an unspecified number of doses being made at an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands. Talks between officials on both sides are ongoing.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are all fighting the same pandemic. Vaccines are an international operation; they are produced by collaboration by great scientists around the world. And we will continue to work with our European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout.
“We remain confident in our supplies and are on track to offer first doses to all over-50s by 15 April and all adults by the end of July. Our plan to cautiously reopen society via our roadmap also remains unchanged.”
The Guardian revealed on Monday that the UK’s vaccination programme would be delayed by two months if there was a total ban on doses being exported to the UK. EU officials said decisions on exports would be taken on a case-by-case basis. “It is not an export ban,” an official insisted.
The EU’s 27 heads of state and government will discuss the change to the export mechanism at a summit on Thursday. The mechanism previously only took into account whether a supplier was fulfilling their contract with the EU.
Despite concern among some EU countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium at the risk to supply chains by the move, there is little prospect of it being withdrawn.
The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU was a global producer of vaccines, with 43m doses distributed to 33 countries since the end of January, but the bloc needed to protect its supplies.
She said: “While our member states are facing the third wave of the pandemic and not every company is delivering on its contract, the EU is the only major Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development producer that continues to export vaccines at large scale to dozens of countries.
“But open roads should run in both directions. This is why the European commission will introduce the principles of reciprocity and proportionality into the EU’s existing authorisation mechanism.
“The EU has an excellent portfolio of different vaccines and we have secured more than enough doses for the entire population. But we have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens. Every day counts.”
Only one export request has so far been prohibited by the EU: a 250,000-dose shipment by AstraZeneca from Italy to Australia.
The main export destinations for vaccines made in the EU include the UK (approximately 10.9m doses), Canada (6.6m), Japan (5.4m), Mexico (4.4m), Saudi Arabia (1.5m), Singapore (1.5m), Chile (1.5m), Hong Kong (1.3m), Korea (1m) and Australia (1m).
“If you have a high vaccination rate, why do you need vaccines going there while in other places in the EU there is a lack?” a senior EU official said.
The EU has also widened the scope of the export authorisation mechanism to take in all neighbouring countries including those with which it has a close trading relationship, such as Norway and Switzerland.
EU and UK officials denied a report by La Stampa newspaper that claimed 29m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine destined for the UK had been found at a plant run by the manufacturer Catalent in Anagni, Italy. An UK source said the government was not expecting the delivery of Catalent supplies from Italy to the UK.