21:55 GMT28 February 2021
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    The UK has been at loggerheads with Brussels over the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine, jointly developed by the Swedish firm and Oxford University. While Britain is reportedly rolling out its inoculation programme five times faster than the EU, the UK also remains the European country most affected by the COVID pandemic so far.

    World Health Organisation (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris called upon the UK to temporarily halt its vaccination programme as she urged non-vulnerable parts of the British population “to wait” for COVID jabs to ensure that vaccines are “fairly distributed” around the globe.

    Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Saturday, Harris said that once countries such as the UK administer COVID shots to high risk groups and health care workers throughout the country, they should stop with immunisation efforts among other parts of society in a bid to “ensure that the supply you’ve got access to is provided for others.”

    “We’ll also appeal to all the people of the UK – you can wait,” the WHO representative said.

    According to Harris, this is not only “morally clearly the right thins to do”, but also “economically”.

    “There have been a number of very interesting analyses showing that just vaccinating your own country and then sitting there and saying ‘we’re fine’ will not work economically,” the official maintained. “That phrase ‘no man is an island’ applies economically as well.

    “We in the world, we’re so connected and unless we get all societies working effectively once again, every society will be financially effected,” Harris added.

    UK Vaccine Roll-out

    On 8 December 2020, The United Kingdom launched its biggest vaccination programme to date, with PM Boris Johnson announcing a plan to immunise all British adults by autumn with at least one dose. Three vaccines have received emergency approval in the UK so far - the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, jointly developed by the American and German pharmaceutical giant; a vaccine manufactured by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca and Oxford University; and the most recently approved vaccine, by America’s Moderna. Some other vaccines, including those by Novavax and Janssen, are also currently undergoing a third phase of clinical trials in the country.

    More than seven million British people had already received the first dose of the vaccine by 27 January 2021, according to authorities - an immunisation programme which is believed to be five times faster that the one rolled out in the European Union, where fewer than 2 percent of the bloc’s residents have been inoculated so far.

    A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a person at the Newcastle Racecourse vaccination centre, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Britain January 29, 2021
    A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a person at the Newcastle Racecourse vaccination centre, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Britain January 29, 2021

    The British government is aiming to vaccinate no fewer than 14 million people in the four most vulnerable categories by 15 February 2021, including care home residents and those aged 80 years and over. To meet the plan in the wake of the emergence of a new, more transmittable strain of coronavirus, the UK’s Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation advised the government to prioritise the first dose of the two-step vaccine, effectively prolonging time between the shots. The second one could now be administered 12 weeks later after the first one is received.

    Despite the efforts and strict lockdown measures, Britain remains the European country most affected by the COVID-19 so far, with 3.7 million reported cases that have resulted in over 104,000 deaths from complications caused by the virus.

    EU-UK Dispute Over Export of Vaccines 

    But while the UK’s vaccination programme has been in full swing, the European Union has been facing shortages and setbacks in its anti-COVID roll-out, with reported delays at AstraZeneca’s Belgium plant and other technical difficulties Pfizer has been experiencing while trying to scale up its production.

    AstraZeneca announced last week that it would reduce its promised supply of 300 million doses plus an additional 100 million to the EU by 60% in the first quarter of 2021, sending some hard feelings across the 27-member bloc, which has also been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The firm was then urged by Brussels to honour its commitment by sending to the EU doses manufactured at its British plants, but the company has refused to do so, citing a separate contract with the UK that has secured 100 million doses of the vaccine from AstraZeneca.

    The pharmaceutical giant has denied the accusations that it had failed to meet the amount of doses it promised to the EU, saying that the number was just a desired “target” and not a pledge.

    © REUTERS / Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
    FILE PHOTO: A vial and syringe are seen in front of a displayed AstraZeneca logo in this illustration taken January 11, 2021

    Following the dispute, the European Commission announced a new rule set to control the export of any coronavirus vaccines manufactured in the EU without permission. Brussels even decided to temporarily override part of the Brexit deal by effectively installing border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland - still part of the Customs Union – to prevent vaccines shipments from reaching the UK through the “backdoor”. The decision has caused an outcry from London, Dublin and Belfast, which accused the EU of undermining the Irish Protocols with the action. The EU has quickly backtracked on its decision to impose restrictions on the export of vaccines across the island.

    However, the uncertainty over the EU-UK export of vaccines has persisted even following a Friday conversation between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which was concluded with an “optimistic” tweet from the EU official stating that the two have "agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”

    European Union, vaccine, coronavirus, COVID-19, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, United Kingdom
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