Ursula von der Leyen has revealed to EU leaders that 21m doses of Covid vaccine have been exported to the UK from suppliers based in the bloc’s member states as she emphasised the need to secure jabs at home.
At a virtual summit of the 27 heads of state and government, the European commission president used an address to highlight the dependency of the British government on EU supplies.
She disclosed that 77m doses made by producers in the EU had been shipped to 33 countries since 1 December. Of those 21m went to the UK of which just over one million were from AstraZeneca, with the rest supplied by Pfizer. “While remaining open, the EU needs to ensure Europeans get a fair share of vaccines,” she tweeted.
Her comments to leaders came after the commission increased its scope on Wednesday for blocking vaccine exports to countries with a better record than the EU in vaccinating its population, or those that restrict exports through law or in their contracts with suppliers.
The commission’s regulation, in force since January, previously only took into account whether a supplier was fulfilling its contract with the EU.
There has been some disquiet among some member states at the commission’s move to toughen its export controls. The latest draft summit conclusion had leaders underlining “the importance of transparency as well as of the use of export authorisations”, without offering explicit support for the revised mechanism.
The UK does not ban the export of vaccines, 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 would also appear to fall foul of the EU’s new criteria on vaccination coverage, with 45 jabs administered per 100 residents, compared with 13 per 100 on average across the 27 member states. A total of 31m jabs have been administered in the UK.
Countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden, which are concerned about the impact on supply chains of any block on shipments, pushed back against any explicit reference to the commission’s revised regulation.
Speaking in the Bundestag, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, called on Europe to increase domestic vaccine production given the lack of exports from the UK and the US, describing the pandemic as a “great litmus test” of the EU’s capabilities.
“The problem at the moment with the vaccine supply isn’t so much due to the question, ‘how much was ordered?’, but more about how much can be manufactured on European soil,” she said. “Because we can clearly see: British manufacturing plants manufacture for Great Britain, the US aren’t exporting anything, and therefore we rely on what can be produced in Europe and we have to expect this virus will preoccupy us for a long time.”
The EU has suffered from a major supply shortfall of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because of a yield problem at a plant in Belgium and the company’s subsequent refusal to divert doses made in the UK. Of the 120m promised doses this quarter, just 30m are expected to be delivered.
Given the shortage of supply, 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.
UK officials have been in negotiations since Monday on the issue. In a joint statement on Wednesday evening, the two sides had said they were continuing to seek a “win-win” solution.
But EU officials had been exasperated by a subsequent intervention by the health secretary, Matt Hancock. In an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday, Hancock had said the UK had a better contract than that secured by the commission, a claim vehemently denied by sources in Brussels.
Meanwhile, the EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, is understood to have advised EU ambassadors that the UK’s interest in the jabs in the Netherlands is particularly acute as the government had not stockpiled vaccine for second doses, leaving them in need of production from Europe to fully vaccinate those administered with a first jab.