Vaccine Row: Why The UK And EU Are Kicking Off About Covid Jabs

An international tug of war has broken out over doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The row between the UK and the rest of Europe over supplies of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine continues to escalate, with Boris Johnson set dismiss any proposals to block exports to Britain.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has ramped up the rhetoric this weekend, saying the EU has the power to “forbid” the jabs leaving the bloc.

But there’s the slight complication that an increasing number of Europeans don’t even want the jab over unfounded fears about its safety.

Here’s the latest on the bizarre row.

What started it all?

Covid jabs are one of the most coveted resources on the planet right now as every country in the world scrambles to vaccinate their populations against the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it looks like not all the doses that manufacturers promised can be delivered on time.

The EU and the UK negotiated separate contracts with suppliers, and the process of approving the vaccines and declaring them safe in the UK has also been independent from the EU. (This is, despite the government’s brags, nothing to do with Brexit.)

In addition to the UK government investing directly in the research, Britain was much quicker in giving the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine the all-clear and has progressed much further in its vaccination programme than any EU country. This has helped the UK get first doses into the arms of more than half its adult population – but across the EU the figure is much lower, at just over 10%.

So it’s a case of sour grapes?

It’s a bit more complicated than that, and largely rests on where the doses of vaccine are being produced.

Within Europe, AstraZeneca manufactures the jabs in four different factories. (Worldwide, there are other labs, such as the Serum Institute of India.) Two are in the UK and two are in EU member states.

One of these European plants is in Leiden in the Netherlands. Run by sub-contractor Halix, it is listed as a supplier of vaccines in both the contracts that AstraZeneca has signed: with Britain and with the European Union.

The thing is, there’s not enough jabs to fulfil all the contracts within the timescale agreed. We don’t know, because it is confidential, how bad the shortfall is for each contract.

The UK is insisting the contracts must be honoured and Britain should receive its agreed doses from the plant even though this means the EU won’t.

But the EU is insisting that because these doses are manufactured in the EU, they should be distributed in the EU in order to fulfil its contract with the company.

One EU official has laid the blame squarely on AstraZeneca, telling Reuters: “The UK is not to blame. The EU is not to blame.

“It’s about everyone finding agreement with a company that has been over-selling its production capacity. AstraZeneca has to deliver doses to its EU customers.”

This sounds a bit familiar, right?

This row has been rumbling on in one form or another for months. In January, the EU was accused of trying to “steal” British vaccines.

Two factories in Britain run by Oxford Biomedica and Cobra Biologics are also listed as suppliers to the EU in the contract with AstraZeneca, but no vaccine has so far been shipped from Britain to the EU, despite Brussels’ earlier requests.

EU officials say they were told by AstraZeneca that the UK is using a clause in its supply contract that prevents export of its vaccines until the UK has enough doses to offer one to all adults.

According to Politico, such a clause does exist and spells out penalties that the UK can impose on AstraZeneca if it doesn’t deliver, though the actual details are redacted.

The EU, however, has no such clause in its own contract with the company.

What are the politicians saying?

EU officials are being pretty blunt, with one telling Reuters: “What is produced in Halix has to go to the EU.”

In the UK, politicians are sticking to the letter of the contracts.

Defence minister Ben Wallace told Sky News on Sunday: “The European Commission will know that the rest of the world is looking at the Commission, about how it conducts itself on this, and if contracts get broken, and undertakings, that is a very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc that prides itself on the rule of law.”

These combative attitudes have escalated to a point now where von der Leyen is threatening to block exports and Johnson is having to plead with EU member states to dismiss any such proposals.

So who’s right?

This time, it’s a little difficult to see the EU’s point of view.

Firstly, in January when the row over vaccines began, von der Leyen explicitly said there should “not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities”.

Vaccines produced at Halix cannot even be used in the EU at present as AstraZeneca has not yet sought approval for them, though an internal AstraZeneca document seen by Reuters shows that the company expects EU approval on March 25.

This delay in approval has characterised much of the EU’s slower vaccine rollout. The UK signed a deal with AstraZeneca three months before the EU and EU leaders are now under immense pressure to justify why the UK is so far ahead.

Social care minister Helen Whately said as much on Monday, telling Sky News: “One thing I think we can do is remind the EU of the commitments they have made, and particularly Ursula von der Leyen, the EU president, made the commitment to the prime minister that the EU wouldn’t block companies from fulfilling contractual obligations to supply vaccinations.”

Asked whether the UK would retaliate if the EU did impose a block on vaccine exports, she 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.”

Secondly, unfounded fears about blood clots – which have since been allayed by regulators in Europe, the UK and the US – dented public confidence in the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Last week, France, Germany, Italy and Spain joined other smaller European countries in pausing the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab following reports of blood clots in some patients. Rollouts have since resumed but public confidence in the vaccine in these countries has plummeted.

Boris Johnson gestures after receiving the first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine l on March 19.
Boris Johnson gestures after receiving the first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine l on March 19.
WPA Pool via Getty Images

Some 61% of French adults surveyed said they believed the vaccine was unsafe, a rise of 18 percentage points compared to February, the YouGov survey released on Monday found.

Just over half of German adults surveyed said they thought the vaccine was unsafe, a rise of 15 percentage points compared to February, while 43% of Italians had serious doubts, an increase of almost a third.

Spain showed a similar increase to Italy in the level of concern, YouGov said.

Italian authorities reported up to 20% of appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine booked before the suspension had been missed in some regions since the ban was overturned, but other regions had seen little or no change.

Only in Britain was trust in the vaccine stable.

On Monday, data from a US-led trial showed the vaccine is 79% effective at preventing Covid-19 and offers 100% protection against severe disease.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has since investigated reports of unusual blood disorders. No causal link has been found either in Europe or in Britain, and regulators in both territories said last week that benefits of the vaccines far outweighed any possible risks.

What will happen next?

The row shows no signs of dampening down as the Covid situation in Europe continues to worsen.

EU nations face a third wave of infections and their vaccination campaigns are moving more slowly than those of Britain and the United States.

Health experts have chided EU leaders for poor communication and said the vaccine AstraZeneca developed in partnership with Britain’s Oxford University is safe.

European leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday to discuss next steps, a meeting that was due to be held in person but will now occur virtually because of rising infection rates.

It’s understood EU officials are now reviewing all options, including enforcing an export ban that was approved in January, in an attempt to secure vaccine supplies. They may hope that blocking shipments to the UK will relieve growing political pressure in Europe over the bungled rollout.

While France, Germany and Italy broadly support tighter export curbs on those who do not share and share alike, countries including the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland are more cautious about cutting off the UK.

The EU has so far blocked just one shipment of 250,000 vaccines to Australia. However, using the export ban powers against the UK would open up a new front of vaccine nationalism that could provoke retaliation, including the possibility of Britain halting European exports of lipid ingredients from Yorkshire, used in Pfizer’s vaccine production in Belgium.

Will the row affect the UK rollout?

Possibly, but it’s too early to say right now.

Despite a record day on Saturday in which 844,285 jabs were given to members of the public, the NHS has warned of a “significant reduction” in supply from the end of March – even without the row with the EU.

Johnson previously said a delay in deliveries from India, as well as the need to retest a batch of 1.7m doses, was behind issues with vaccine supply in April.


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