BRUSSELS – The European Union completes emergency legislation that gives it extensive powers to curb exports of the block-made Covid-19 vaccines for the next six weeks. This is a marked escalation in their response to domestic supply shortages that have created a political vortex amid a rising third wave on the continent.
The bill, due to be released on Wednesday, has been reviewed by the New York Times and approved by two EU officials involved in the drafting process. The new regulations will make it harder for pharmaceutical companies making Covid-19 vaccines in the European Union to export them, and supplies to the UK are likely to be disrupted.
The European Union has come into conflict with AstraZeneca in the first place, as it drastically reduced its supplies to the bloc and cited production problems in January. The company is the main target of the new regulations. However, legislation that could block the export of millions of doses from EU ports could also affect Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Britain is by far the biggest benefactor of EU exports and will lose the most to these rules. However, they could also be used to curb exports to other countries such as Canada, for example the second largest recipient of vaccines made in the EU. and Israel, which is receiving doses from the block but is very advanced in its vaccination campaign and is therefore seen as less needy.
“We are in the crisis of the century. And I’m not ruling anything out for now, because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible, ”said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in comments last week that paved the way for the new rules. “Human life, civil liberties and also the prosperity of our economy depend on it, on the speed of vaccination and on further development.”
The legislation is unlikely to affect the United States, which has received fewer than one million doses from facilities in the EU.
The Biden government has announced that it has received enough doses from its three authorized manufacturers – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson – to cover all adults in the country by the end of May. Most of this supply comes from plants in the United States. The country also exports vaccine components to the European Union, which is reluctant to risk disrupting the raw material supply chain.
The European Union allowed pharmaceutical companies to perform their contracts by authorizing them to export more than 40 million doses of vaccine to 33 countries between February and mid-March, with 10 million going to the UK and 4.3 million going to Canada. The bloc has kept about 70 million at home and distributed them to its 27 member states, but its efforts to run mass vaccination campaigns have been set back by a series of missteps.
Liberal overseas exports when domestic supply is low was a significant part of the problem, and the bloc was criticized for allowing exports at all when the United States and Britain practically closed domestic production through contracts with pharmaceutical companies .
The result was a problematic introduction of vaccines for the richest group of nations in the world. The impact of the outages is compounded by a third wave that puts health systems across the continent on emergency mode and instigates painful new lockdowns.
March 24, 2021, 12:00 PM ET
The European Commission, which ordered the vaccines, and individual governments in member states responsible for their national campaigns, have been banned by voters fed up of being banned and increasing the number of Covid-19 cases because of their failure , heavily criticized. Public anger and political costs have risen as the bloc has fallen behind several wealthy counterparts in the world in promoting vaccination campaigns, despite major manufacturers based here.
The bloc has seen recipients of vaccines made in its member countries as well as other rich countries drive their vaccination campaigns. Almost 60 percent of Israelis have received at least one dose of vaccine, 40 percent of British and a quarter of Americans, but only 10 percent of EU citizens have been vaccinated, according to the latest information released by Our World in Data.
The export restrictions are being enforced by the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, and while changes to the new rules could take place before the law is finalized, officials said they are unlikely to be substantial. They are expected to enter into force quickly.
EU officials said the rules would allow for a degree of discretion, meaning they would not result in a blanket export ban, and officials still expected many exports to continue.
“The proposed measures concern,” said Youmy Han, spokeswoman for Canada’s Minister for International Trade, Mary Ng.
“Minister Ng’s colleagues have repeatedly assured her that these measures will not affect vaccine shipments to Canada,” said Ms. Han. She added: “We will continue to work with the EU and its member states, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to ensure that our essential health and medical supply chains remain open and resilient.”
Canada depends on the European Union for almost all of its vaccine supply: all of Canada’s Moderna and Pfizer vaccines come from Europe, although the country received a small shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India.
The new rules come after months of escalating tensions between the European Union and AstraZeneca in a situation that has become toxic to the bloc’s fragile relations with its recently deceased member, the UK.
The problems started in late January when AstraZeneca notified the block that it would cut its shipments by more than half in the first quarter of 2021, which turned plans to launch vaccines upside down. In response, the European Union has put in place an export authorization process whereby pharmaceutical companies must obtain permission to export vaccines and give the European Union the power to block them if they are seen as a breach of a company’s contractual obligations to the bloc.
As of February 1, the European Union has blocked just one of more than 300 exports, a small shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, on the grounds that the country is virtually Coviden-free while the block struggles with increasing infections.
The new rules will introduce more reasons to block exports, the drafts show. They will encourage blocking shipments to countries that do not export vaccines to the European Union – a clause clearly targeting the UK – or to countries that have “a higher vaccination rate” than the European Union, “or where the current epidemiological situation is less serious “than in the block according to the Times.
In recent days, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to use a conciliatory tone to avert an EU export ban that would deal a severe blow to his country’s rapidly advancing vaccination campaign.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said he was against blockades and was “encouraged by some of the things I’ve heard from the continent.” The UK news media reported that his government would be ready to have the block produce four million AstraZeneca cans in an EU factory.
Benjamin Mueller reported from London, Sharon LaFraniere from Washington and Ian Austen from Ottawa.