EU threatens UK export ban on life-saving Covid vaccine

The European Union has threatened to slap an export ban on the Belgian-made Pfizer BioNTech Covid jab as a desperate measure to acquire more doses of the Oxford University AstraZeneca vaccine.

A row has erupted over “production problems” at AstraZeneca’s UK facilities that mean the pharma giant will transport just under 50 million doses to the EU by the end of March instead of the 80 million originally agreed.

Brussels is responding with a planned squeeze on exports using its tried and trusted weapon, red tape.

The EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides said an “export transparency mechanism” would be put in place “as soon as possible” so that “in future, all companies producing vaccines against Covid-19 in the EU will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries.”

Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn says he wants all exports of vaccine approved by the EU meaning mountains of extra paperwork for anyone trying to procure Pfizer jabs from outside the EU.

“We, as the EU, must be able to know whether and what vaccines are being exported from the EU,” Spahn said.

MPs say the EU is acting out of “spite” and trying to cover up for its own fatal mistakes in approving the Pfizer jab late. The Oxford vaccine will only get regulatory approval this week.

Deputy head of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, David Jones said: “Quite clearly they’ve had a very cumbersome procurement process which has resulted in this. The fact is we were far more astute in our purchasing process.

“Frankly, it seems like a rather childish and spiteful way to behave. This looks awfully like blackmail, which is pretty disreputable and shows why we were right to leave the EU.”

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “If the EU were to take action unilaterally that restricted supplies of vaccine bought legally and fairly by the UK, it would poison economic relations for a generation. At such a critical moment, the world needs vaccine nationalism like a hole in the head.”

The EU’s threat of a ban on exports is a reminder of the export battle within the bloc at the height of the last Covid spike when Germany restricted exports of vital PPE to Italy which was at the epicentre of the pandemic.

EU leaders vowed to avoid a beggar thy neighbour approach to vaccines, deciding to upload decision-making and purchasing to the European Commission – Germany has purchased its own jabs, possibly illegally.

However, the EU’s vaccine programme has been beset with delays, the Pfizer jab was approved after the all-clear was given by UK and US authorities. Similarly, the Oxford jab is being green-lit late and restricted to the under-65s on the basis it is only 8% effective in pensioners, which AstraZeneca says is “completely incorrect”.

AstraZeneca claim their vaccine, developed at the University of Oxford, provokes “strong immune responses” in older people with 100% developing antibodies to fight the virus after receiving a second dose.

The production delays at AstraZeneca also mirror similar issues at Pfizer’s Belgian facility, which sparked a row at an online meeting of EU leaders last week over how to acquire more vaccine when the roll-out is already slow.

Danish PM, Mette Frederiksen suggested buying up the Oxford vaccine in advance of regulatory approval, ready for quick distribution to vaccination centres, but she was slapped down as pre-purchasing would break EU rules.

Meanwhile, even Germany, one of the EU’s top performers with access to more doses is languishing behind the UK, just 1.78 million people jabbed, less than a third of the British total.