COVID-19: EU turns up the heat on AstraZeneca - and warns company must honour its vaccine contract

·4-min read

EU leaders have told AstraZeneca that it must "catch up" on vaccine deliveries in Europe before it is allowed to export jabs to other countries.

Frustration is growing in Brussels over a massive shortfall in the number of jabs that EU countries are receiving - with the continent's vaccination programme lagging behind the UK.

At a news conference, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the trading bloc is determined to get its "fair share" of vaccines.

She added: "Companies have to honour their contract to the European Union before they export to other regions in the world. This is of course the case with AstraZeneca.

"I think it is clear that the company has to catch up and honour the contract it has with the EU member states before it can engage again in exporting vaccines."

According to EU officials, the UK has imported 21 million doses that were made in the EU - but they claim none had come to the trading bloc from Britain.

Officials in the UK claim they did a better job of negotiating with manufacturers and arranging supply chains.

Figures from the Our World In Data website suggest that, as of Tuesday, the European Union has only administered 14 shots for every 100 people, compared with 46 per 100 in the UK.

A third wave of infections has been surging on the continent, prompting the European Commission to unveil plans that would allow vaccine shipments to be blocked to nations with higher inoculation rates.

French President Emmanuel Macron is among those who backs such measures. After the summit, he said: "I support the fact that we must block all exports for as long as some drug companies don't respect their commitments with Europeans."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte disagreed, and warned that there could be "broader consequences" if a stricter approach to vaccine exports is implemented.

Brussels and London had sought to cool tensions ahead of the summit - declaring that they were determined to create a "win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens".

Mr Rutte has said he is "cautiously optimistic" that divisions between the UK and the EU can be resolved.

He told reporters: "I think that on Saturday or soon after, they could come to an agreement which would be very helpful because we are friends, the UK and the rest of Europe, and we need each other."

Other divisions have also emerged between EU leaders, with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz claiming that some European countries have been receiving more than their fair share of jabs at the cost of others.

Mr Kurz warned: "When member states have a lot less vaccines available to them than others, then I think this is a big issue for Europe. This could cause damage to the European Union like we haven't seen in a long time."

Several EU nations have opted to impose strict lockdown measures over the Easter measures as the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19 pushes some hospitals to the limit.

EU reserves its ire for vaccine makers rather than the UK
Analysis by Michelle Clifford, Europe correspondent, in Brussels

There was no frontal assault on the UK at a news conference held after EU leaders talked COVID.

In fact, the UK was barely mentioned at all - except for a quick reference to the fact that no vaccines had come from that side of the channel.

Ire was mainly reserved for vaccine-producing companies - AstraZeneca in particular - that were sending doses abroad when EU orders had not been fulfilled. There was the warning that those companies are now under the spotlight.

But if the EU decides to block their shipments abroad, tensions with the UK could be stirred. Will it be able to complete its second doses without them?

Even the company the EU sees as the good guy - Pfizer, which has delivered on its promises - isn't happy with the EU's move to tighten export rules.

Pfizer has warned it would be a "lose-lose situation". That's because its factories in the EU rely on imports of ingredients and components from other countries, including the UK, to make its vaccines.

It's been said plenty of times vaccine production is a complicated business. It sure is.

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