LONDON – A dispute between the UK and the European Union over the export of Covid-19 vaccines could jeopardize not only current inoculation campaigns, but also undermine the fight against new variants, experts warn.
On Wednesday, the The European Commission said “Reciprocity” would be among the new criteria it would consider before authorizing vaccine exports outside the 27-nation bloc. The EU vaccination campaign lags behind other countries, including the UK, as Covid-19 cases rise on the continent.
Talk of an export ban last week prompted requests for cooperation from Britain, which is partly dependent on vaccine supplies from Europe.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides stressed that the new rules are not an export ban, but experts warn that international tensions like these could have serious side effects. The European Commission and the UK issued a short statement late Wednesday to say they were in talks on vaccine plans and that EU heads of state will discuss this at a virtual summit on Thursday.
“If trade restrictions and other supply-side bottlenecks prevent universal coverage, then this would certainly make us all less safe,” said Rob Yates, director of the global health program at the Chatham House think tank in London. .
“With the arrival of new variants that may require a new booster vaccine, we may need to ensure universal coverage of these new vaccines annually.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have emphasized that no one is safe until there is global access to vaccines. And the longer the virus circulates, the more likely it is that new, more infectious, or deadly variants will develop.
Export bans and disputes over vaccine distribution could only hamper these efforts.
“There is a connection to vaccine coverage, because if you delay vaccine coverage, over time you create more opportunities for replication in larger communities and emerging strains and variants,” said Dr. Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Health. Global at the University of Geneva.
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Europe is now facing a third wave of the virus along with new lockdowns in several countries. On Wednesday, Kyriakides said the bloc has seen an increase in the spread of variants, including the South African variant, which has been identified in 18 countries.
Only more than 10 percent of adults in the EU have received their first injection, compared to more than 50 percent of adults in the United Kingdom and 32 percent of adults in the United States.
President Joe Biden has said there will be enough doses in the US for every adult by the end of May, and the UK hopes to be able to offer vaccines to all adults by the end of July. The EU’s goal is to vaccinate 70 percent of adults by late summer.
Vaccines are not known to have been exported by the US and UK. At the same time, EU-based manufacturers have exported at least 41 million doses to 33 countries since the beginning of February, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week.
Last week, the White House announced a plan for the first US exports: 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to Canada and Mexico. The vaccine is not yet approved for use in the US.
The United States has also said it will donate up to $ 4 billion to the COVAX humanitarian program, which aims to distribute vaccines fairly among rich countries and the developing world. However, critics have said that these countries need the vaccines more than the money.
And any slowdown in vaccine distribution due to trade barriers could exacerbate the situation.
“Trade restrictions, to the extent that they actually prevent proper and orderly deployment of the vaccine internationally, could indirectly create more problems in the future by creating more variants that we don’t know how to deal with,” said Flavio Toxvaerd. economic epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.
According to Matt Linley, a senior analyst at Airfinity, a scientific analysis company, the supply of vaccines in the US could also come under pressure if the EU enacts trade restrictions.
“There is a possibility that countries will start pressuring the United States to start releasing doses of Pfizer and Moderna if they don’t leave Europe,” he said.
For the time being, UK politicians this week stressed the need for international cooperation on vaccines, in what appeared to be an effort to avoid escalating tensions with the EU. But these business pressures are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, according to Yates. from Chatham House.
“It is not going away, especially if we are looking for the need for booster shots and new vaccines on the way,” he said. “This could really become a major global health problem in the future.”