Britain’s much-touted COVID-19 vaccination programme might be challenged by a two-month delay if the EU goes through with its threat to hold shipments of AstraZeneca jabs made in Europe to the UK hostage, reports The Guardian.
Up for debate among the leaders of the 27 EU member states on Thursday, the move could potentially upend Downing Street’s plans to reopen the pandemic-battered economy this summer, according to a new analysis for the outlet.
However, the ban would not provide any significant boost to the EU member states’ sluggish vaccination programmes, suggests a report provided by the data analytics company Airfinity.
Britain’s inoculation programme has been on a roll, allowing the government to entertain hopes for bringing the nation out of lockdown, while the EU has been under fire for lagging behind.
Against the backdrop of a surge in COVID-19 infections across the continent, the EU's flailing jab programme has seen swathes of the bloc reinstating lockdown restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.
As of 21 March, the bloc had administered 10.4 jab doses per 100 people, compared to 42.7 jabs per 100 in the UK.
Ahead of the EU jab threats, the UK had been on course to beat its target of delivering a first vaccine dose to every adult in the nation by the end of July by over six weeks, according to Airfinity.
However, an embattled European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen claimed over the weekend that Brussels has the clout to "forbid" exports of Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses.
"We have the possibility to forbid planned exports. That is the message to AstraZeneca, ‘You fulfil your contract with Europe before you start delivering to other countries’,” said the European Union chief, speaking to a group of German newspapers.
EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness similarly refused to rule out a ban, adding that "everything is on the table".
If the ban on jabs produced by the British-Swedish manufacturer were to be set in place, a stalled UK vaccination effort would likely result in extended pandemic restrictions on people’s lives, while failing to achieve the desired result in the EU.
The relatively small number of doses blocked from being shipped to the UK and, accordingly, retained within the bloc, would speed up the full vaccination of every adult on the continent by “just over a week”, Airfinity data cited by the outlet suggests.
Close to 10 mln vaccine doses have been shipped from plants in EU member states to the UK, predominantly by Pfizer/BioNTech.
Britain also anticipates approximately another 30 mln Pfizer doses and 30 mln from Johnson & Johnson.
An expected reduction in the UK's vaccine supply in April was also reported to be due, in part, to a delivery delay from the Serum Institute of India of five million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses, according to the BBC.
However, the imposition of an export ban on doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine produced in Belgium and Germany might delay every adult receiving a first jab until 5 August, according to data by Airfinity.
A potential ban on all exports of vaccines, including those from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, would delay reaching the jab target until 27 August, the analysis suggests.
“Export bans are a lose-lose situation and threaten the global production scale-up. The imposition of a ban would mean the EU has marginally more doses short-term, but it won’t fundamentally change its vaccine availability, and the EU could soon be dependent on vaccine imports,” said Rasmus Bech Hansen, the chief executive of Airfinity.
“A ban poses a significant risk for the UK and any potential UK retaliation on sub-ingredients would harm not only the EU and UK but the world, as it will significantly slow overall production.”
The EU has been hoping to fully vaccinate 70 percent of the population by the end of the summer.
Notwithstanding its current difficulties, data from Airfinity states the bloc is on target for full vaccination of 75 percent of the population by 31 August.
Accordingly, if Brussels were to “keep and use the doses meant for the UK it would only bring them forward by just over a week [19 August], as their collective population is much greater”, states the report.
EU-UK Vaccine ‘War’
After Brussels’s threats to block jab shipments to the UK, Britain’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said the EU’s reputation was at stake , warning that “the world is watching” the EU’s next steps.
“If contracts get broken… that is a very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc that prides itself on the rule of law… They would undermine not only their own citizens’ chances of having a proper vaccine programme, but also many other countries around the world, with the reputational damage for the EU which they would find very hard to change over the short term,” he said on Sky News's Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme.
'The commission knows the world is watching.'— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) March 21, 2021
Ben Wallace says if the EU blocks #COVID19 vaccine exports to the UK, 'it would be damaging for a trading block that prides itself on the rule of law'. He adds the EU would face 'reputational damage'.https://t.co/dr15MQYTQ2 pic.twitter.com/V6KaV72pmu
The 27 heads of state and government will discuss the mulled emergency measures on Thursday via video conference, after soaring coronavirus cases prompted a rejection of plans to meet in person.
We will continue to work so that Europe gets its fair share.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) March 17, 2021
We will invest even further in Europe’s production capacities, beyond this acute phase.
And we will ensure long-term supply, with trusted companies. pic.twitter.com/HqVrAbVn5v
The EU has already set up a special oversight mechanism ensuring that manufacturers contracted to supply Europe with jabs must declare if they intend to export doses outside the bloc.
The bloc’s export ban mechanism must first be triggered in an individual member state and subsequently approved by the European Commission before being enforced.
Previously, it was applied when Italy blocked the export of a 250,000-dose shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, citing “persistent shortage” and “delays in supply”. It was the first time new rules were used to allow a ban on EU exports if a drug provider failed to meet its obligations to the bloc, reported the BBC.
Currently, not all EU members support export bans, which could upset global supply chains, with Belgium and the Netherlands urging caution.
France and Germany, facing a surge in COVID-19 cases and forced to resort to lockdown measures again, have privately spoken in support of activating article 122 of the EU’s treaty, writes The Guardian.
The EU commissioner for financial services, Mairead McGuinness, was cited as saying on Sunday:
“European citizens are growing angry and upset at the fact that the vaccine rollout has not happened as rapidly as we had anticipated.”
Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed Saturday was "a record-breaking day for the vaccine rollout, with 873,784 people receiving a jab" in the UK.
Yesterday was a record-breaking day for the vaccine rollout, with 873,784 people receiving a jab.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 21, 2021
A huge thank you to everyone involved and please come forward to get your jab when you are invited to do so.