Updated: March 26, 2021 10:34:42 pm
After months of bickering with British-Swedish vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca, the European Union on Wednesday proposed stricter export control rules for six weeks that would help it tide over supply shortages that have marred inoculation efforts in member countries.
With the continent in the throes of a third wave, the new legislation seeks to make it more difficult to export vaccines manufactured in the bloc, and would most likely adversely impact supplies to Britain.
The controversial proposals are being criticised from both within and outside the EU, with experts warning that a ban on vaccine supplies could disrupt global supply chains at a critical juncture in international efforts to stem Covid-19.
What the EU is proposing to do
Under the regime proposed on Wednesday, vaccine exports from the EU would be governed by factors including how is the destination country is faring vis-a-vis the coronavirus, and what vaccine-related products it sends to the 27-member bloc.
While the rules will apply to all vaccine makers, they would mainly target AstraZeneca, which the EU blames for meeting the UK’s inoculation targets while failing to meet the bloc’s own despite being contract-bound for the same.
According to Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission’s Vice-President, the new system is required to “have more transparency on exports and obtain a full picture of what is happening outside the EU so as to avoid a possible circumvention of the rules”.
Lashing out at AstraZeneca, Dombrovskis said, “They have committed to deliver 120 million doses to the EU in the first quarter of the year. They are promising to be able to deliver 30 million doses, but they are not even close to this figure, as of today”.
If the EU chooses to adopt the proposal after meetings on Thursday and Friday, the new regime would “apply until six weeks from its entry into force,” its draft text reads.
The EU’s vaccine woes
In the EU, an angry debate is ongoing about delays in the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to its member countries.
Many member states have accused Brussels of being slow in finalising contracts with pharmaceutical companies to ensure the rollout of vaccines, as compared with other rich countries such as the UK and the US. This has placed great pressure on the EU leadership, as other rich countries have gone vastly ahead of the EU in their inoculation efforts.
According to the publication Our World in Data, nearly 60% people in Israel have received at least one dose of the vaccine, 40% in the UK and more than 25% in the US. The EU, in comparison, stands far behind at 10%.
In January, matters worsened for the EU leadership after AstraZeneca announced that it would deliver less than half of the vaccines that it had originally promised the bloc, owing to production delays in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The EU has since accused AstraZeneca of not living up to its contract of supplying vaccines to the bloc, and blamed it for giving the UK preferential treatment– allegations the manufacturer denies.
Restricting exports from the EU
To stem the growing anger from its constituents, the EU has since taken a number of decisions that have been described as controversial and knee-jerk.
In late January, the bloc made an embarrassing U-turn after it first threatened to restrict the export of vaccines to Northern Ireland and the UK using Article 16, an emergency provision in the recently concluded Brexit deal.
After AstraZeneca announced the drastic supply cut, the EU put in place an export control system that requires pharma manufacturers to take permission from the bloc before exporting, and gives Brussels powers to block shipments if the companies are deemed to have broken contractual obligations.
So far, though, such powers have only been used to stop one out of 381 shipments from leaving the bloc– a batch of over 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine headed to Australia, a country where the coronavirus outbreak is much less severe compared to Europe.
The new rules proposed on Wednesday seek to enhance the same system, making it more rigid.
Reactions to the proposal
The proposed restrictions have been criticised by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that curbs on vaccine exports would impact investments in EU countries that enforce them.
“I would just gently point out to anyone 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 or not to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed,” Johnson said.
Even within the EU, fears have been expressed about how such a decision might damage the bloc’s reputation as a rules-based trading destination, while others have warned that it could trigger a trade war.
World Health Organization Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan has called the EU plan “self-defeating”, and warned that any ban could “snowball” and become “uncontrollable.”
Stressing on international cooperation, Dr Swaminathan said to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the daily global death toll of 7,000-10,000 is “unnecessary and preventable”, and that vaccines should be “equitably and fairly distributed around the world”.
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