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EU steps up vaccine exports rules and pressures AstraZeneca over deliveries

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Key Points
  • The EU has exported more shots than it has given to its citizens so far.
  • However, some EU nations have voiced concerns about the stricter export rules, with countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands wanting supply chains to remain open.
  • European Commission President said that AstraZeneca, "has to catch up, has to honor the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines."

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President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.
Thierry Monasse | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — The European Union has stepped up tough rules on the exports of Covid vaccines, while also piling pressure on AstraZeneca to deliver more shots to the region. 

It comes as the region's sluggish vaccine rollout faces scrutiny, despite the EU continuing to export millions of coronavirus shots abroad.

In an attempt to have a stronger negotiating position with pharmaceutical firms that do not respect delivery targets, the bloc has extended its strict rules on vaccine exports.

Before approving shipments of Covid-19 shots, the EU will consider whether the recipient country has any restrictions on vaccines or raw materials, as well as if it is in a better epidemiological situation.

"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 honoring their commitments and it does not risk security of supply in the European Union," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday.

We all know, we could have been much faster if all pharmaceutical companies had fulfilled their contracts.
Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President

Data released on Thursday showed that the EU has exported 77 million doses of Covid shots since December to 33 countries worldwide. At the same time, 88 million have been delivered to EU countries, of which 62 million have been administered. As such, the EU has exported more shots than it has given to its citizens so far.

However, some EU nations have voiced concerns about the stricter export rules, with countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands wanting supply chains to remain open. There is a risk that if exports of vaccines are stopped, it could start a trade war and other parts of the world — which make the raw materials needed for vaccine production — might stop shipping them to Europe.

Pressure on AstraZeneca

The EU has also been at odds with the Swedish-British drugmaker for not delivering as many Covid shots as the bloc was expecting.

The 27 nations were awaiting 90 million doses of this vaccine in the first quarter and 180 million in the second quarter of 2021. However, AstraZeneca has said that production issues mean it can only deliver 30 million doses until the end of March and 70 million between April and June.

The reduced delivery targets are a concern for EU nations, some of whom wanted more of this vaccine as it's cheaper and easier to store than others. Any further delivery delays to Europe could compromise its wider rollout plans.

"We all know, we could have been much faster if all pharmaceutical companies had fulfilled their contracts," von der Leyen said on Thursday.

During a press conference, she added that AstraZeneca, "has to catch up, has to honor the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines."

The EU's vaccine rollout has faced a number of challenges since the beginning and the Commission, which negotiated with the drugmakers, has been criticized for taking too long to sign vaccine deals.

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Speaking to CNBC on Friday, Italy's former prime minister Mario Monti said: "We should not be too surprised that Europe has reacted quite well in terms of monetary, financial fiscal response to the pandemic, and so far not quite (as) well in terms of procurement and industrial response."

He argued that while EU nations have integrated their monetary policies and part of their fiscal responses, "there has never been such a thing as a health union."

The individual governments are still in charge of their own health policies, whereas areas like international trade are the main responsibility of the European Commission.

A deal with the U.K.

The EU's tighter export rules could become an issue for the U.K. in particular, which has been receiving vaccines from the EU. Its vaccination rate is higher than the bloc's, when looking at the number of first doses given.

Numbers from the European Commission show that the U.K. has received 21 million doses of vaccines produced in the bloc — the highest share of EU exports so far. The U.K. has administered 31 million doses of Covid-19 shots to its population so far, which suggests that about two-thirds of the vaccines used in the U.K. have come from the EU.

"We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the U.K. and EU on Covid-19," the two sides said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

"Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take - in the short-, medium - and long term - to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at a press conference on Thursday that a vaccine supply agreement between the EU and the U.K. could be announced as early as Saturday.

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