NEWS
28/01/2021 10:45 GMT | Updated 29/01/2021 11:08 GMT

Is The EU Really Trying To Steal The UK's Covid Vaccines?

Europe and Britain have turned on each other as the row over AstraZeneca's supply problem escalates.

Welcome to the vaccine wars.

Anyone reading the front pages this morning will have noticed a new front has opened in the fight against Covid-19: instead of battling the virus, states now appear to be battling each other.

The row centres on supplies of precious vaccines, with the EU and Britain both making their cases to the manufacturer of the AstraZeneca/Oxford jabs about who should receive it first.

What are the papers saying?

Almost all of Thursday’s front pages lead on the row over vaccines, but some have gone in a bit more... patriotically than others.

What’s the row about?

In short, AstraZeneca – which developed and manufactures the Oxford vaccine – has not been able make enough jabs in time to fulfil the contracts it signed with the EU.

Is this a case of vaccine nationalism?

It’s actually more of a case of factory nationalism. 

AstraZeneca manufactures the jabs in four different factories. Two are in the UK and two are in the EU.

The British government has said it expects those manufactured in the UK to be administered in the UK.

But the EU disagrees. 

European health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said on Wednesday: “There is no hierarchy of the factories. You are aware in the contracts there are four factories listed but it does not differentiate between the UK and Europe.

“The UK factories are part of our advance purchase agreements and that is why they have to deliver.”

But what’s the problem if we have two factories each?

The problem has arisen because of a “production glitch” at a factory in Belgium.

AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot has said this issue means “we are basically two months behind where we want to be” in terms of supplying the EU with vaccines.

So it’s AstraZeneca’s fault?

Not according to AstraZeneca.

Well they would say that, right?

True, but it’s hard to disagree with their logic. Soriot has said there were similar “teething issues” when setting up the manufacturing process in the UK but the deal with Britain was signed three months ahead of the EU.

“So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced,” he said.

So is the EU trying to steal our vaccines?

“Steal” is a very strong word – but, yes, they are trying to force a redistribution of them that would benefit the bloc and reduce the number available for the UK.

Is that fair?

Depends how you look at it. AstraZeneca has responsibilities to both the EU and the UK. It doesn’t seem fair for the UK to lose out as a result of a glitch at an EU factory, but it’s hard to imagine the UK making the same argument if the tables were turned and one of our factories had problems while the EU ones kept producing. “First dibs” doesn’t really come into it given that both the UK and EU had signed deals with AstraZeneca.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday that the EU’s contract with AstraZeneca contains binding orders. 

“There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear,” von der Leyen told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding it contained clear delivery amounts for December and the first three quarters of 2021.

“AstraZeneca has also explicitly assured us in this contract that no other obligations would prevent the contract from being fulfilled,” she added.

So will the UK lose out?

It doesn’t look likely – at the moment, anyway.

The EU has also threatened to monitor future exports of vaccines, which doesn’t seem like a problem in itself, especially as the EU trade commissioner ruled out any export bans.

The bloc has specifically asked if it can divert doses manufactured in the UK to make up for the shortfall in EU supplies, but the company did not answer these questions, an EU official told Reuters.

As for the British government, it is not backing down. Michael Gove on Thursday morning said: “We must make sure that we continue with the effective acceleration of our vaccination programme.

“That relies on the supply schedule that has been agreed being honoured.”

When asked if Britain would allow the vaccine to be diverted to the EU, as requested by some politicians in the bloc, Gove said: “It is the case that the supplies which have been planned, paid for and scheduled should continue. Absolutely, there will be no interruption to that.”

Could this escalate further?

Possibly. As Britain’s supply of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is mostly manufactured in the UK rather than at the Belgium plant, the EU’s spat with the company shouldn’t affect supplies of that specific jab.

But the EU’s threat to impose new rules on all vaccine manufacturers would also affect Pfizer, which makes its vaccine in a factory that is also in Belgium.

The row would have to escalate further but if the EU went beyond asking for “early notification whenever [manufacturers] want to export vaccines to third countries” and were to impose actual export controls, then it could limit how many reach the UK.