Vaccine clash deepens as EU demands exports oversight

AstraZeneca publicly rebuked for failing to deliver promised quantities

The EU’s struggle to secure mush needed Covid-19 vaccine supplies intensified on Thursday as Brussels insisted it would tighten oversight of exports after a row with AstraZeneca over deliveries, news wires reported. The Commission, which has coordinated vaccine orders, said it would on Friday detail a mechanism to require both notification and authorisation of Covid-19 vaccine exports from the Union.

The EU Member States are far behind Israel, the UK and the US in rolling out vaccines as some of the biggest drugmakers slow deliveries due to production problems. While vaccination centres in Germany and France cancelled or delayed appointments, the EU publicly rebuked AstraZeneca for failing to deliver and even asked if it could divert supplies from Britain.

But the row further deepened as Britain demanded that it receive all the shots it paid for. The UK, which has repeatedly touted its lead in the vaccine rollout race since leaving the EU on 1 January, said its deliveries must be honoured, Reuters reported.

“I think we need to make sure that the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered,” Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said. Asked if the British government would prevent AstraZeneca diverting essential vaccine supplies from Britain to the EU, Gove said the crucial thing was that Britain received its orders as planned and on time. 

Under fire from the EU, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said the EU was late to strike a supply contract so the company did not have enough time to iron out production problems at a vaccine factory run by a partner in Belgium. The EU scolded the company on Wednesday and demanded the drugmaker spell out how it would supply the bloc with reserved doses of Covid-19 vaccine from plants in Europe and Britain. 

The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up doses in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left. Tensions have risen as both New York-based Pfizer and AstraZeneca, headquartered in Cambridge, England, have had production problems. 

“The reality is there is a shortage of vaccines,” the World Health Organisation’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, said. “Manufacturers and producers are working 24-7 to bridge the gaps and we’re confident the delays we are seeing now are going to be made up by extra production in the future.” 

In the northern French region of Hauts-de-France, France’s second-most-densely-populated region, several vaccination centres were no longer taking appointments for a first jab. In several other French regions, some online appointment platforms closed booking options.

Spain’s Madrid region has ceased first vaccinations for at least this week and next and was using the few doses it has to administer second shots to those who have had the first one, said deputy regional government chief Ignacio Aguado.

Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, last week postponed opening its vaccination centres until 8 February, while the state of Brandenburg has also had to push back vaccination appointments originally scheduled for the end of January due to delivery delays.

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