EU and Britain trade barbs in row over Covid-19 ‘vaccine nationalism’

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European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday rejected charges of “vaccine nationalism” levelled at the bloc, claiming that while Britain and the United States have outright bans on exports of Covid-19 shots, the EU had not stopped exporting.

The EU has found itself under fire at home for lagging far behind former member the United Kingdom and the United States in its vaccine roll-out.

It has also been criticised abroad for trailing the likes of China, Russia and India in the supply of vaccines to poor countries.

Last week it annoyed vaccine buyers abroad by endorsing an Italian decision to halt a shipment to Australia.

Britain had a quick retort for the comments by Michel, who represents the 27 European Union member states, saying it has not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine.

“Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false,” a UK government spokesman said.

In a lengthy statement Michel laid out a defence of the bloc’s strategy. He said that without Europe, it would not have been possible to develop and produce several vaccines in less than a year, and EU solidarity had ensured that poorer countries of the bloc received their first doses.

He took aim at the “highly publicised” supply of vaccines by China and Russia to other countries.

“We should not let ourselves be misled by China and Russia, both regimes with less desirable values than ours, as they organise highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines to others.”

Michel also noted that China and Russia had both vaccinated fewer people at home than the EU.

“Europe will not use vaccines for propaganda purposes. We promote our values,” he said.

Michel also defended a system to control the export of doses produced in EU countries, invoked by Italy last week to block a shipment of AstraZeneca shots to Australia.

>> France, EU back Italy’s decision to block Covid-19 vaccine shipment to Australia

“Our objective: to prevent companies from which we have ordered and pre-financed doses from exporting them to other advanced countries when they have not delivered to us what was promised,” Michel said. “The EU has never stopped exporting.”

Turning to Sputnik V?

The blunt comments come as the EU’s 27 member states struggle to achieve lift-off with a plan to immunise 70 percent of adults by mid-September.

The slow roll-out has been marked by severe criticism of Brussels for spearheading a collective purchase of vaccine doses that have largely failed to be delivered.

Much of the initial delivery shortfall was down to Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca failing to meet its supply schedule to the European Union. 

Some member states, among them Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are increasingly looking to vaccines not authorised by the EU’s medicine regulator, the EMA, to fill the gap, in particular Russia’s Sputnik V jab and ones from China.

The EMA is reviewing how effective and safe Sputnik V is, and an Italian-Swiss pharmaceutical company, Adienne, has agreed to produce it in Italy.

But the EU executive has indicated it is unwilling to add it to its vaccines portfolio, which is projected to deliver 2.6 billion doses over this year and next.

Michel said the EU would become the world’s leading vaccine producer in the coming months and was the best equipped to adapt vaccine output quickly to virus mutations.

The British government’s rebuff of his comments came amid growing tensions between London and Brussels following the completion of Britain’s exit from the EU at the end of 2020.

Relations strained by years of bruising talks over Brexit took a turn for the worse in January when the EU briefly threatened to use emergency measures to stop coronavirus vaccines going from the bloc into Northern Ireland, a British-ruled province bordering EU member state Ireland.

“This pandemic is a global challenge and international collaboration on vaccine development continues to be an integral part of our response,” the British government spokesman said.



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