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EU Threatens Vaccine Export Ban, Prompting UK, Australian Backlash


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference on the Commission's response to COVID-19, at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 17, 2021.

European Union officials say they are ready to invoke emergency powers, not used since the 1970s, to ban coronavirus vaccine exports and to seize factories in Europe making the vaccines.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said Wednesday she was no longer prepared for vaccines made in the EU to be exported to Britain and other countries which have been markedly quicker rolling out inoculation programs.

The threat took non-EU diplomats based in Brussels by surprise and risks inflaming tensions with several countries, including Britain and Australia. The EU recently blocked an Australia-bound shipment of AstraZeneca doses.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded by asking Brussels to release a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to help Papua New Guinea overcome a dangerous outbreak authorities fear may spread to other parts of the region. “We've contracted them. We've paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

The threat has also surprised U.S. officials, who told VOA they are seeking clarification from Brussels. U.S.-owned Pfizer is producing millions of doses of its BioNTech vaccine in Germany and Belgium, although most of those doses are destined for the EU market.

Von der Leyen has instructed her officials to prepare to invoke article 122 in EU treaty law that would place the bloc on a war footing. It would permit the EU to seize factories, waive intellectual property rights and override patents and impose export bans.

The article hasn’t been used since the oil crisis in the 1970s.

With EU countries engulfed by a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and with less than a tenth of the bloc’s 450 million population vaccinated, Von der Leyen accused AstraZeneca — which developed its vaccine with Britain’s Oxford University — of having “underproduced and under-delivered" to the EU.

Von der Leyen plans to discuss with EU national leaders the export ban proposal at a summit next week as heads of state and government of the bloc’s 27 members would have to approve the proposal before it can go ahead. She said at a press conference: “It is hard to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the EU are going to other countries that are also producing vaccines, while hardly anything is coming back.”

The EC president added: “We are in the crisis of the century and I’m not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible.” She warned she was “ready to use whatever tool we need” to ensure “Europe gets its fair share.”

A man leaves a vaccination site with a sign reading "No vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine today," in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, southwestern France, March 16, 2021.
A man leaves a vaccination site with a sign reading "No vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine today," in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, southwestern France, March 16, 2021.

But some critics say the current vaccine crisis is largely of the EU’s own making. The bloc’s inoculation rollout, which has been marred by logistical mistakes and hampered by bureaucracy, has left the EU lagging on vaccine doses. The bloc’s vaccine rollout has lagged behind inoculation programs in Britain and the United States.

Last month, EU commissioners came under fierce criticism in the European Parliament for their handling of the inoculation campaign. Von der Leyen and her commissioners had pushed for vaccine procurement and disbursement to be handled by Brussels, arguing it would advertise the bloc’s strength and solidarity while reducing the risk of vaccine rivalry between member states.

But the EU bureaucracy was months behind Britain and the U.S. in ordering vaccines and did not fast-track the approval process for coronavirus vaccines — something Von der Leyen has acknowledged to European lawmakers.

The shortage of vaccines worsened this week when 17 member states decided to pause administering the AstraZeneca doses they have on hand because of fears the vaccine causes blood clots, despite assurances from the bloc’s medicines regulator and the World Health Organization the vaccine is safe.

EU member states have received 62.2 million vaccine doses under the bloc’s joint procurement but so far have only administered 77% of them. The bloc has received 14.8 million AstraZeneca shots but used less than half. But by June AstraZeneca will likely have failed to deliver 180 million doses to Europe under advance purchase agreements with Brussels, say EU officials.

Asked at Wednesday’s press conference about the large stock of unused jabs, Von der Leyen dismissed suggestions that she was sparking a “vaccine war” to distract public attention away from the bloc's slow vaccine rollout.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for the EC to explain more clearly why it is threatening a blanket export ban.

“I think it takes some explaining because the world's watching ... it also cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the commission,” he told Reuters. “We expect those assurances and legal, contracted supply to be respected. Frankly, I'm surprised we're having this conversation.”

The threat of an export ban also prompted a sharp response from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who warned against vaccine nationalism.

“We have said before that the global recovery from Covid relies on international collaboration,” said Johnson’s official spokesperson. “We are all dependent on global supply chains and putting in place restrictions endangers global efforts to fight the virus.”

Talk of export bans and factory seizures has promoted unease among European lawmakers. Bernd Lange, head of the European parliament’s trade committee, tweeted: “Threat of export bans on COVID19 vaccine by the European Commission is a sign of helplessness rather than strength. We’ve seen this coming for months.”

Shortly after the EU’s announcement, Britain’s National Health Service sent a warning to vaccination centers predicting that the vaccine supplies would become “significantly constrained” in the next four weeks because of “reductions in national inbound vaccines supply.”