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British papers warn of 'vaccine war' as EU-UK stand-off becomes increasingly tense

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has raised the option of an export ban.

Johnson and von der Leyen at a Brussels summit in December.
Johnson and von der Leyen at a Brussels summit in December.
Image: PA Images

THE UK GOVERNMENT and the EU are engaging in an increasingly fraught stand-off over vaccine supplies with British media warning about a potential “vaccine war”. 

The cause is the ongoing dispute between Anglo-Swedish pharma company AstraZeneca and the EU over the multinational’s supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. 

On Saturday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccines if the bloc did not receive its promised deliveries first, escalating a row that has fanned international tensions.

“We have the option of banning a planned export. That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries,” von der Leyen told Germany’s Funke media group.

Von der Leyen said pharma giant AstraZeneca had delivered only 30% of the 90 million vaccine doses it had promised for the first quarter of the year.

The company has blamed production delays at its EU plants but European officials are furious that AstraZeneca has been able to deliver its UK contract while falling short on the continent.

The row is increasingly focused on a factory in the Netherlands that is still awaiting official approval to begin production, but where both sides are claiming the future supply of the AstraZeneca jab and of key ingredients, EU and UK sources said.

The EU is “simply trying to have the contract with AstraZeneca respected,” a source close to von der Leyen told AFP.

The company has delivered less than 10%of the planned doses for 2021. It is therefore normal for us to ask that these doses be delivered as planned to Europeans.

The backdrop to the standoff is the UK’s more advanced vaccination programme which has seen an estimated 42.7 shots administered per 100 people, compared to the EU’s 10.4

There is concern in the UK that an EU export ban on vaccines could delay its vaccination programme by up to two months.  

It comes as the UK is also beginning to feel the pinch of a supply shortfall from the Serum Institute of India — the world’s biggest vaccine maker — which means the rollout’s next phase covering people in their 40s will be delayed from April until May.

Speaking to Sky News, UK defence minister Ben Wallace said that “the world is watching” and that the EU was seeking to “balkanise or build walls” around vaccine supplies that could “damage its reputation globally”. 

Wallace hit back by warning that the manufacture of the Pfizer vaccine depends on supplies from the UK.

“The grown-up thing would be for the European Commission and some of the European leaders to not indulge in rhetoric but to recognise the obligations that we all have,” he added on The Andrew Marr Show.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to speak to EU leaders this week in an effort to dismiss any plans for a banning of vaccine exports. 

Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme this morning, UK health minister Helen Whately said that what’s coming out now is “some speculation, some conjecture and an element of rhetoric.”

“What is actually important is that the EU and no country should follow vaccine nationalism or vaccine protectionism,” she said. 

We expect the European Union to stick by their commitments and I’m sure the Prime Minister will be in contact with European counterparts – he speaks to European counterparts regularly- but I don’t think this debate is helpful to anybody.

“What matters is for all countries to be getting on and deploying and vaccinating their population.”

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Asked whether the UK would retaliate if the EU did impose a block on vaccine exports,  Whately said: “I don’t think it is very helpful to speculate at the moment. I don’t think this is a helpful line to go down.”

‘Angry and upset’

Also appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme yesterday, Ireland’s EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness refused to be drawn on any potential vaccine export ban but said that von der Leyen has said that everything is on the table. 

She said that EU citizens “are growing angry and upset at the fact that the vaccine roll-out has not happened as rapidly as we had anticipated”. 

“Both the EU and the UK have contracts with AstraZeneca and my understanding is the company is supplying the UK but not the European Union,” she said. 

“We are supplying the UK with other vaccines, so I think this is just about openness and transparency.”

- With reporting by © – AFP 2021 and Press Association

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Rónán Duffy

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