EU leaders have been warned that threats to block the export of vaccines to Britain could trigger a future trade war – as the UK Government opened talks with Brussels to defuse the row.
Newly published rules would give the European Commission the right to stop firms such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer from sending EU-made vaccines to countries which do not export doses themselves and have vaccinated more of their population than Europe.
Boris Johnson told MPs on Wednesday the measures could dissuade pharmaceutical giants from investing in the EU – and Pfizer spoke out shortly afterwards, calling for “the free movement of goods and supply across borders” to be protected. The company said: “Pfizer is deeply concerned by any legislation that threatens our ability to manufacture in, or export from, the European Union.”
Officials from the UK and EU have begun negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise deal which would ensure that both parties have access to supplies of vaccines being made on the continent. They said in a joint statement: “Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short, medium and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.” A No 10 source expressed “cautious optimism” over the possibility of an agreement in the coming days.
The Prime Minister told MPs on the Commons liaison committee: “I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of medicines, of ingredients for vaccines, are sensible and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very considerable.
He told MPs on the Commons liaison committee: “I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of medicines, of ingredients for vaccines, are sensible and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very considerable.
“I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade or an interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is significant to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.”
The measures come amid the EU’s ongoing row with AstraZeneca. They are seeking ways to block the company from sending vaccines outside the bloc while it is failing to deliver the number of doses it has promised to Brussels.
The rules make it easier to stop exports of vaccines going to countries which do not display “reciprocity and proportionality”, with Britain singled out as one state which has been allowed to receive more doses than it has exported. Politicians in the UK and EU claimed the moves risked escalating the dispute and could prove counterproductive.
The new measures, which must be signed off by member states at a European Council summit over the next two days, state that companies must apply for permission whenever they want to send vaccines out of the bloc. Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president of the European Commission, said that the EU “continues to export vaccines to countries that have production capacities of their own but when these countries do not export to the EU there is no reciprocity”.
The UK has not exported significant numbers of vaccines abroad, but the Government argues that because there is no formal exports ban it would be unfair to block deliveries from the EU to Britain. But Mr Dombrovskis said: “If a country of destination which has a large production capacity restricts its own exports of vaccines or substances – either by law or other means – it may be appropriate to consider whether exports to this country are justified.”
So far the row has centred mostly around a factory in the Netherlands which is due to produce at least 10 million doses for the UK. However, Brussels has not ruled out blocking Pfizer exports too, which could prevent Britain from administering second doses to those who have already had their first jab from the company.