British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the European Union does not want to launch a vaccine battle, even though the bloc has warned it will restrict exports of coronavirus injections to the UK.
In a bid to ease tensions with Brussels, Johnson said avoiding vaccine supply lockdowns is vital because immunization programs require countries to work together.
“It reassures me talking to EU partners in recent months that they don’t want to see blockades,” Johnson said in a joint interview with broadcasters on Monday. “That is very, very important.”
He spoke after the EU put in place restrictions targeting companies that it says have failed to meet delivery obligations to the bloc. The strain of the vaccine runs the risk of further taking a toll on relations with London, already strained by Brexit, trade and tensions over Northern Ireland.
The block is likely to reject authorizations to export AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccines and their ingredients to the UK until the drugmaker fulfills its contracts, according to a senior European official, who asked not to be named because the decisions are under consideration. A production plant in the Netherlands and another in Belgium produce ingredients for the Astra shot.
The EU says the problem is one of reciprocity. The UK is the largest recipient of manufactured doses in the EU, receiving 10 million of the 42 million injections exported by the bloc so far.
“It’s about making sure that if we export vaccines to countries that also produce vaccines, we also receive vaccines or products necessary for the production of vaccines,” said European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer.
Despite the slow rollout of vaccines in the EU, not all governments are in favor of export controls. Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday they would be a “step backwards”.
But he too indicated that Great Britain must face the situation, “which is that AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in Europe have been made available to go to Great Britain, that must be recognized by the United Kingdom and reciprocated to some extent”.
Meanwhile, with the increase in virus cases in the EU, governments have been forced to implement new closures. Johnson cautioned that the UK may not escape the latest increase.
“People in this country should not be under any illusions that past experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, it also hits our shores,” he said. The UK is reflecting on next steps to ease restrictions.
Ahead of a meeting of EU leaders later this week, Johnson has been discussing the vaccine issue with his counterparts, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Belgian Alexander De Croo, a person familiar with the matter said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Johnson on Sunday. While her spokeswoman Martina Fietz said Merkel seemed eager to bring calm, she too indicated that Germany “supports the attempts of the EU commission to ensure that member states receive vaccines in accordance with the agreements reached.”
Meanwhile, Pfizer Inc. warned that free movement of supplies between the UK and the EU is critical to the production of its own vaccine. The manufacturing of lipids, the fatty substance used to deliver the genetic material at the heart of the vaccine that Pfizer makes with its German partner BioNTech SE, takes place at a secret location in the UK before being shipped to the EU where it is complete injections.
Astra’s vaccine has been at the center of the EU’s vaccination problems since it first cut delivery targets due to a production problem. More recently, his injection was temporarily stopped in much of Europe for fear of blood clots.
While the EU drug regulator endorsed the vaccine last week, and the US trial results released Monday said there were no safety concerns, public confidence in the vaccine has collapsed in Europe. This public concern could be bad news for the EU vaccination campaign.
The EU is not the only one with supply problems. The UK faces a “significant” four-week cut in the supply of Covid-19 vaccines from the end of March. A delayed shipment of the Astra vaccine from India and a batch requiring retesting are behind the disruption.
Edward Lister, one of Johnson’s closest advisers, is in India this week following the delay of Astra doses destined for the UK by the country’s Serum Institute. Johnson’s office said it was a pre-planned trip before the prime minister visits India next month rather than an attempt to address the shortage.
– With the assistance of Suzi Ring, Richard Bravo, Kitty Donaldson, Alex Morales, Emily Ashton, Dara Doyle and Arne Delfs
(Updates with the Irish Prime Minister in the eighth paragraph)