It was only a week ago when several countries, mostly in Europe, temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after several reports of recipients getting blood clots. News broke out globally after one of the AstraZeneca receivers, a 60-year old Danish woman, had “unusual symptoms” and died from blood clots. Although the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted individual research on the vaccine’s safety and reassured the frightened mass population that the jab was safe and effective, this did not preserve relations between the European Union and AstraZeneca.
On March 20, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed solemnity when speaking to the newspapers of Funke Mediengruppe, Germany’s third largest newspaper and magazine publisher, in regards to AstraZeneca, who still has not delivered its signed deal of doses to the bloc. Von der Leyen gave the pharmaceutical company a warning that an export ban will be implemented if they don’t deliver the number of promised vaccines. Although AstraZeneca is the primary target of this possible barrier, it would also apply to other pharmaceutical companies that are failing to supply the European Union but manage to provide doses to countries with high vaccination coverage.
This is different from the legislation that the European Commission adopted earlier this year, which from January 30th to March 31st of this year, allows members of the bloc to stop shipments of vaccine doses outside of the European Union under certain conditions. This legislation was enacted to tackle the lack of transparency in vaccine exports outside of the EU and as a global initiative to distribute vaccines to poorer countries. Earlier this month, Italy was the first country to exercise this right by blocking 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia, a nation who experienced minimal local transmission of the virus. Yet, the reason for this rejected export is because of AstraZeneca’s failure to supply the EU.
In a video press conference by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, and Von der Leyen, the latter chief, readdressed AstraZeneca’s breachment of their contract. She remarked that, “Companies have to honour their contract to the European Union before they export to other regions in the world.” She also added that AstraZeneca only delivered 30% of the 90 million vaccines that were supposed to be received during the first quarter of the year.
AstraZeneca’s inability to meet its delivery does not come off as a surprise. In fact, the tension between the two parties started earlier this year when the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company drastically cut down the signed commitment of 300 million doses to only a fraction due to production problems. This did not sit well with some of the European member states as the third wave of the virus swept through the continent. Several European countries like Germany and France had to reintroduce lockdown measures or extend the restrictions but others like the U.K. were not affected.
In fact, the reason why there are talks of an export ban for AstraZeneca vaccines is because during the time that it experienced production problems, it still continued to supply other clients, including the U.K even though some of the jabs came from production plants in the European Union. The former member of the EU placed its orders with AstraZeneca earlier than the bloc and signed a contract that obliges the pharmaceutical company to send the doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire to them first. So not only would there be a possible export ban for AstraZeneca but also across the English Channel because the vaccination rollout is more successful than in the EU.
Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the U.K., disapproves of the potential blockade and told the Liaison Committee, the lower house of parliament, that this would cause long-term damage. “I would just gently push anybody considering a blockade or interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.”
Despite the European Union’s sluggish start in the vaccine rollout across the 27 member states, it still plans to reach herd immunity by July 14 of this year.