EU leaders have endorsed the European Commission’s mechanism to authorise the export of vaccine doses outside Europe before shipment, though remaining cautious on its use, while the bloc promoted its current track record as the world’s main vaccine exporter.
In their statement after the European Council on Thursday evening (25 March), the EU-27 heads of state and governments sought to present a united front, underlining “the importance of transparency as well as of the use of export authorisations” when it comes to vaccine shipped to third countries and backing the efforts made so far by the Commission.
In February, the EU executive launched an export mechanism to ensure transparency by better tracking where vaccine exports are directed.
Under these rules, companies manufacturing vaccines in Europe require authorisation from national authorities – which can be denied under certain conditions – before shipping vaccines outside the EU.
European Council President Charles Michel lauded a very strong consensus among the member states on the issue of the mechanism.
“We want more transparency, and this is the goal of this mechanism put on the table by the Commission,” he said after the EU summit.
But there was some disagreement apparent among EU leaders, according to EU and diplomatic sources. While France, Italy and Spain showed strong support for the mechanism, others asked the Commission to be cautious on actually implementing the tool.
The group, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland, asked the Commission to refrain from blocking shipments without consulting national authorities and vaccine manufacturers.
On Wednesday (24 March), the Commission tightened up the mechanism including new criteria which could deny export to countries that have already ensured a certain vaccination rate, if it is higher than the one in the EU.
“We want to make sure that Europe gets its fair share of vaccines because we must be able to explain to our citizens that if companies export their vaccines to the whole world, it is because they are fully honouring their commitments without putting at risk the security of supply in the EU,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference.
The mechanism has been criticised outside Europe as it has been compared to an export ban with the potential of triggering retaliation from other countries and, therefore, disrupting the global supply chain of vaccines.
However, von der Leyen dismissed such criticism, unveiling for the first time all data collected so far on vaccine export, showing that Europe is the region that exports the highest number of vaccines worldwide.
According to the Commission’s figure, the total number of exports from the EU amounts to approximately 77 million doses to 33 different countries, including the poorer nations included in the COVAX initiative.
“Our track record speaks for itself. Since the start of the mechanism on 1 February, more than 380 export requests and only one has been stopped,” von der Leyen said.
She added that this data shows the EU as the most open, reliably exporting region in the world, mentioning the US and their executive order to prioritise US citizens and the fact that the UK has not shared the same figures on exports.
“Perhaps I’m mistaken and I’m waiting for that transparency,” she said in what sounded like a challenge aimed at the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to unveil data on UK exports.
However, troubles are mounting at home, as the EU’s supply chain is still undermined by the lack of deliveries that affect the roll-out of vaccines. Europe has had 88 million doses delivered so far, of which 62 million doses have been administered.
During the EU summit, the Commission told EU leaders that 18.2 million people have been fully vaccinated so far in Europe, almost 4.1% of the population.
Missing deliveries from the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca remains a major issue, with questions remaining over whether it is prioritising the UK supply over the European one.
The situation could still change if the export mechanism is used. Von der Leyen made clear that the company has to honour the contract it has with the EU member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines.
“There are some concerns serious concerns with regard to this one company,” said Charles Michel, calling for AstraZeneca to ensure predictability of their vaccine production and respect contractual delivery deadlines.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi reserved harsh words for AstraZeneca, according to EU sources, with the premier saying European citizens felt “disappointed” and “fooled” by the company.
A change of tack is expected in the second quarter of the year, although AstraZeneca has committed again to a lower number of doses than was contracted – 70 million instead of 180 million.
BioNtech/Pfizer and Moderna are, however, expected to deliver doses of their vaccines according to the schedule, with the possibility of even increasing the doses produced, von der Leyen told EU leaders.
The single-shot Johnson&Johnson vaccine will increase the array of vaccine available in the second quarter, providing countries with a valuable tool in fighting the pandemic.
Accelerating the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines remains essential and urgent to overcome the crisis, the EU leaders agreed during the summit.
“Efforts to this end must be further intensified,” said Michel.
“We have a strong interest in expanding the vaccine production in the EU to be prepared for the time where we will, at a certain point, to re-boost the immunity against COVID-19 or COVID variants,” warned von der Leyen.
EU leaders confirmed the deadlock over the distribution of the additional 10 million BioNTech-Pfizer doses.
Countries more exposed by the shortfalls in the supply of the cheaper AstraZeneca vaccine have asked for these extra doses not to be distributed pro-rata but following criteria that take into account infections and the current quantity of vaccines in a certain member state.
This coalition of countries was lead by Austria, who threatened to veto the Council’s final statement at a certain point of the meeting.
In the end, the EU leaders passed the buck to the EU ambassadors asking them to solve the issue “in a spirit of solidarity” but confirming “the pro-rata population key for the allocation of vaccines.”
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]