Angela Merkel rules out vaccines trade war as EU mulls blocking AstraZeneca exports to UK

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Angela Merkel has ruled out an EU blanket ban on coronavirus vaccine exports to Britain but warned that shipments from a Dutch AstraZeneca plant to the UK remained in the EU’s sights. 

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, has accused AstraZeneca of breaching its contract with the EU after the company after it delivered just 30 percent of the doses promised in the first quarter of 2021. 

Mrs Merkel, who announced a hard Easter lockdown to combat a surge in German cases,  was speaking ahead of an EU summit on Thursday where leaders will discuss  Mrs von der Leyen’s suggestion that the bloc could trigger Article 122 of its treaties and block vaccines being exported to the UK

The German Chancellor made clear that exports from Pfizer’s Belgian plant to the UK should not be curtailed by any future EU action. Britain exports raw materials for the Pfizer jab to the EU and there are fears that could be hit by retaliatory action if a trade war escalates. 

“When it comes to vaccine production, there are a huge range of international interdependencies. You have to be very careful now about imposing general export bans – you have to take a very close look at the supply chains,” Mrs Merkel said. 

Mrs Merkel said: “We will make our decision in a responsible manner, and at the same time we will keep talking to the British government.”

She said she supported Mrs von der Leyen, who “ who has made very clear that in cases where the contracts struck with us are not being fulfilled, you have of course a different situation to when contracts are being extensively fulfilled.”

“Bear in mind that some other parts of the world are exporting nothing at all,” she added in a possible reference to Britain.

Clement Beaune, France’s Europe Minister, said Brussels was ready to block millions of doses from the Halix plant in Leiden, the Netherlands to get shipments of the Oxford University jab sent from two UK factories. 

“AstraZeneca says: I am experiencing delays, we say: mobilise your plants for us and if you don’t, we will block exports to the UK,” he told French radio. 

A nurse takes care of a Covid-19 patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit of the university hospital in Essen, western Germany,  Credit: AFP

Mrs von der Leyen recently said that the EU’s contract with AstraZeneca stipulated that the bloc would be supplied by the company’s two British factories. Britain, however, has a contract with the company that gives it first refusal on the doses produced there and is reluctant to release it from that obligation.  

She said the bloc could trigger the seldom-used Article 122. It would hand the EU sweeping powers to seize factories, impose export bans and waive intellectual property and patent rights as it struggles with supply shortfalls, a third wave of infections and a slow vaccination rate. 

Brussels is demanding “reciprocity” from the UK, arguing that while the EU has sent 10m vaccines to Britain over the past six weeks, the UK has exported no jabs to the bloc. 

Boris Johnson is understood to be prepared to share supplies from the Halix plant, which is not yet authorised to supply the EU by the European Medicines Agency. 

British officials are in “constant contact” with the European Commission to find a solution to the stand off. Tim Barrow, the former UK ambassador to the EU and now FCDO political director, is in Brussels to try and break the impasse. 

Both sides remain tight-lipped on the details of the face to face and intergovernmental negotiations. It is understood that negotiations currently focus on defining what “reciprocity” means, whether it would include finished vaccines or their ingredients and whether and how a deal would take into account investment in vaccine development. 

Boris Johnson called Mrs Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on Sunday in a bid to head off an EU export ban. The Prime Minister has also spoken to the prime ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands, where the Pfizer and AstraZeneca factories are based. 

While the UK has offered a first jab to more than 50 per cent of the adult population, only 12 percent of adults in the EU have had their initial dose. Just 9 percent of the German population has had their first dose. 

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said that France should vaccinate ‘morning, noon and evening’ to ramp up its rollout, which has seen just 9.8 percent of its population receive a first dose and hit by fears over the Oxford University jab, which was damaged by unfounded fears it caused blood clots and did not work in the over 65s. .

Meanwhile, the commission’s top health official Sandra Gallina told MEPs  that she was “unhappy” with AstraZeneca’s production, which she described as “very little”. 

She added that while AstraZeneca’s contract had supplies coming from five factories, only one factory was supplying the EU. She blamed the lack of regulatory approval for the Halix plant in the Netherlands on AstraZeneca being slow to start the authorisation process. 

“AstraZeneca had five plans for the production in the contract and it’s at the moment producing from one plant,” she told the European Parliament. “It’s clear, it’s impossible to fulfil a contract if from five plans you are only having one plant that is working.”

Ms Gallina said she was hopeful the EU could still make its target of vaccinating 70 percent of the adult population by September 21. Johnson & Johnson vaccines should be ready for use in the EU by mid-April she said

The commission will publish revisions to its vaccine export transparency mechanism on Wednesday, which it introduced in January.  The rules force vaccine manufacturers in the EU to ask for permission from national authorities and the commission before exporting jabs from the bloc. 

The revised version is expected to focus on countries importing EU manufactured jabs that already have high vaccination rates or that don’t also export to the bloc. Italy became the first country to trigger the mechanism to block 250,000 AstraZeneca jabs from being exported to Australia. 

EU Europe ministers held video conference talks to prepare for Thursday’s summit on Tuesday. 

Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister said, “There are good reasons for the EU to be very hard and consistent, but when it comes to vaccines,, which generally rely on successful global delivery chains […] we always have to keep the consequences of our actions in mind. This means we should make problems smaller and not create new ones.” 

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