President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen talks to media in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters.
LONDON — The European Union on Friday placed temporary controls on the export of coronavirus vaccines made inside the bloc, following a spat with British pharma giant AstraZeneca and wider supply issues.
It has been dealt two massive blows recently with Pfizer saying it would be temporarily lowering production while it upgraded its production capacity at its Belgian plant. Last week, AstraZeneca also said it would be delivering far fewer doses to the EU in the spring than initially expected, due to production issues at its plants in the Netherlands and Belgium.
After pressuring AstraZeneca this week to honor its commitments, and then urging the firm to move vaccines made in the U.K. into the bloc, the EU confirmed on Friday it was implementing temporary controls.
“Protecting the health of our citizens remains our utmost priority, and we must put in place the necessary measures to ensure we achieve this,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Friday.
“This transparency and authorization mechanism is temporary, and we will of course continue to uphold our commitments towards low- and middle-income countries.”
The controls are expected to last until the end of March, and gives powers to EU member states to reject authorizing exports if the vaccine makers do not honor contracts. It’s expected to affect countries like the U.S., Japan and Canada, as well as Britain.
The bloc also said Friday afternoon it was triggering article 16 of its Brexit agreement with the U.K., meaning exports cannot be sent to Northern Ireland which could potentially be used as a back door to the rest of the country.
The EU later on Friday backtracked, saying it would not trigger the safeguard clause but would consider using all the instruments at its disposal.
“This time-limited and targeted system covers only those Covid-19 vaccines that were agreed by Advanced Purchase Agreements with the EU,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s executive vice president and commissioner for trade.
“This mechanism includes a wide range of exemptions to fully honor our humanitarian aid commitments and protect vaccines deliveries to our neighborhood, and to countries in need covered by the COVAX facility.”
The European Union has been under pressure for what critics describe as a slow rollout of Covid vaccines. The European Commission, the institution leading the purchase agreements, has been blamed for not securing enough vaccines, and the region’s medical agency has been criticized for taking too long to approve inoculations that have received the green light elsewhere.
On Friday, the European Medicines Agency approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use in the EU, around a month after it was first given the greenlight in the U.K., which recently left the bloc.
Speaking to CNBC on Friday, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin denied that this spat between Brussels and a British pharma company had turned into another “Brexit battle.”
“All in all, I think the European Commission has behaved well and effectively in relation to vaccine procurement,” he said. “There are a lot of tensions out there … a lot of pressure on the commission from member states, from prime ministers. Why? Because populations are under pressure, people are under pressure.”