The EU and UK are on the brink of a vaccine trade war as London accuses Europe of acting like an 'enemy state'

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen. Getty

  • EU-UK tensions are rising after European officials threatened to block vaccine exports to the UK.

  • UK officials are also accusing the EU of undermining trust in the UK-developed AstraZeneca jab.

  • Tensions have brewed for months between Brussels and London over vaccines and other trade issues.

  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The European Union is on the brink of an explosive vaccine trade war with the UK after officials in Brussels said they might block the export of AstraZeneca vaccines to Britain.

The development, which was briefed to outlets including Bloomberg on Sunday, came amid threats of retaliation and anger in London over what officials see as reckless comments by some European leaders about the vaccine, which was codeveloped with Oxford University.

A YouGov poll released Monday and reported by Politico found a collapse in trust in the AstraZeneca vaccine in mainland Europe following interventions by European leaders questioning its effectiveness and safety.

Scientific studies in Europe, the UK, and the US have all found the vaccine to be both safe and effective.

The YouGov poll, however, found that 61% of people in France believed AstraZeneca’s vaccine was unsafe, up 18 points from February. Similarly large changes appeared in Germany, Italy, and Spain as well. Trust in the UK stayed high, with 77% of respondents saying the vaccine was safe, though that number was 4 percentage points lower than in February.

The survey was conducted from March 12 to Thursday, at the height of investigations over whether AstraZeneca’s vaccine was linked to a higher risk of blood clots. Because of that timing, few if any respondents would have known the European Medicines Agency’s final determination Thursday that the vaccine was safe.

The poll finding was met with disbelief in London, with one unnamed UK government official telling Politico that Brussels was acting like an “enemy state.”

“It is one thing for the EU to risk the lives of its own people by spreading disinformation about the Oxford vaccine – that is bad enough,” the official said.

“But for that disinformation to threaten the lives of people in Britain is a seriously hostile act, the sort of which we would usually only expect from an enemy state.”

The row exploded Sunday when one official told Bloomberg that AstraZeneca vaccines produced in the EU should be reserved for EU member states, which have fallen far behind the UK in their vaccination efforts.

European leaders are scheduled to meet Thursday to decide whether to press ahead with a vaccine export ban after the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Sunday said the British-headquartered AstraZeneca was at risk of breaching its supply obligations to European countries.

“That is the message to AstraZeneca,” she told reporters. “You fulfill your contract with Europe before you start delivering to other countries.'”

“We have the possibility to forbid planned exports.”

As a sign of growing tensions, a UK health minister, Helen Whately, on Monday refused three times to deny that the UK would introduce retaliatory measures if the EU proceeded with a ban.

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace insisted on Sunday that drug companies must honor contracts and told the BBC: “The grown-up thing would be for the European Commission and some of the European leaders to not indulge in rhetoric.”

The row comes amid months of mounting tensions between Brussels and London over the supply of AstraZeneca vaccines.

There is also fury in London over the decision by 13 European governments to suspend the use of AstraZeneca vaccines last week over what turned out to be incorrect fears about blood clots.

A large-scale US trial published on Monday found that the jab was both safe and highly effective, and most European governments have resumed their vaccination programs after the European Medicines Agency last week declared the vaccine safe.

The US trial results found no evidence of a link to blood clots.

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