The European Union presented new emergency rules that will most likely severely cut exports to Britain and other countries to ease supply shortages at home.
BRUSSELS — The European Union is advancing emergency legislation that will give it broad powers to curb exports for the next six weeks of Covid-19 vaccines manufactured in the bloc, a sharp escalation in its response to supply shortages at home that have created a political maelstrom amid a rising third wave on the continent.
The legislation unveiled Wednesday includes new rules that will make it harder for pharmaceutical companies producing Covid-19 vaccines in the European Union to export them and are likely to disrupt supply to Britain.
The European Union has been primarily at loggerheads with AstraZeneca since it drastically cut its supply to the bloc, citing production problems in January, and the company is the main target of the new rules. But the legislation, which could block the export of millions of doses from E.U. ports, could also affect the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Britain is by far the biggest beneficiary of E.U. exports and will stand to lose the most by these rules, but they could also be applied to curb exports to other countries like Canada, for example, the second-largest recipient of E.U.-made vaccines, as well as Israel, which gets doses from the bloc but is very advanced in its vaccination campaign and therefore seen as less needy.
“We are in the crisis of the century. And I’m not ruling out anything for now, because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in comments last week that paved the way for the new rules. “Human lives, civil liberties and also the prosperity of our economy are dependent on that, on the speed of vaccination, on moving forward.”
The legislation is unlikely to affect the United States, which has so far received fewer than one million doses from E.U.-based facilities.
The Biden administration has said it has secured enough doses from its three authorized manufacturers — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — to cover all adults in the country by the end of May. The overwhelming bulk of that supply is coming from plants in the United States. The country also exports vaccine components to the European Union, which is reluctant to risk any disruption to the supply chain of raw materials.
The European Union allowed pharmaceutical companies to fulfill their contracts by authorizing them to export more than 40 million vaccine doses to 33 countries between February and mid-March, with 10 million going to Britain and 4.3 million to Canada. The bloc has kept about 70 million at home and distributed them to its 27 member nations, but its efforts to mount mass vaccination campaigns have been set back by a number of missteps.
Exporting liberally overseas when supply at home is thin has been a key part of the problem, and the bloc has come under criticism for permitting exports in the first place, when the United States and Britain practically locked up domestic production for domestic use through contracts with pharmaceutical companies.
The outcome has been a troubled vaccine rollout for the world’s richest group of nations. The impact of the failures is being exacerbated by a third wave that is sending health care systems across the continent into emergency mode and ushering in painful new lockdowns.
The European Commission, which ordered the vaccines, and individual governments in member states responsible for their national campaigns have come under severe criticism for their failures by voters tired of lockdowns and growing Covid-19 caseloads. Public anger and its political cost have grown as the bloc has fallen behind several rich world peers in advancing vaccination campaigns despite being home to major manufacturers.
The bloc has seen recipients of vaccines produced in its member countries, as well as in other rich nations, race ahead with their inoculation campaigns. Nearly 60 percent of Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose, 40 percent of Britons and a quarter of Americans, but only 10 percent of E.U. citizens have been inoculated, according to the latest information published by Our World in Data.
The export curbs are being pushed through by the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union and are expected to be put into force Thursday.
E.U. officials said the rules would allow a degree of discretion, meaning they won’t result in a blanket ban on exports, and the officials still expected many exports to continue.
“With this mechanism we have a certain leverage, so we can engage in discussion with other major vaccine producers,” Valdis Dombrovksis, the bloc’s trade czar, said at a news briefing Wednesday. “And when we are engaging in those discussions, one important element is that we need to preserve the functioning of the global supply chains,” he said. He declined to specify how the bloc would benefit tangibly from these stricter export restrictions.
Youmy Han, the spokeswoman for Canada’s minister of international trade, Mary Ng, called the measures “concerning.”
“Minister Ng’s counterparts have repeatedly assured her that these measures will not affect vaccine shipments to Canada,” Ms. Han said.Canada depends on the European Union for nearly its entire vaccine supply: All of Canada’s Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have come from Europe, though the country received a small shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India.
The new rules come after months of escalating tensions between the European Union and AstraZeneca, in a situation that has become toxic for the bloc’s fragile relations with its recently departed member, Britain.
The trouble began in late January, when AstraZeneca told the bloc it would cut its deliveries by more than half in the first quarter of 2021, upending vaccine rollout plans. In response, the European Union put in place an export-authorization process, requiring pharmaceutical companies to seek permission to export vaccines and giving the European Union the powers to block them if they were seen as running counter to a company’s contractual obligations to the bloc.
Since Feb. 1, the European Union blocked only one out of more than 300 exports, a small shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, on the grounds that the country was nearly Covid-free while the bloc was struggling with rising infections.
The new rules introduce more grounds to block exports. They encourage blocking shipments to countries that do not export vaccines to the European Union — a clause clearly targeting Britain — or to countries that have “a higher vaccination rate” than the European Union “or where the current epidemiological situation is less serious” than in the bloc.
In recent days, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has sought to strike a conciliatory tone in a bid to avert an E.U. export ban that would deliver a major blow to his country’s fast-advancing vaccination campaign.
After the new rules were announced Wednesday, a spokesperson for the British government said: “We are all fighting the same pandemic — vaccines are an international operation; they are produced by collaboration by great scientists around the world. And we will continue to work with our European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout.” The spokesperson added that the British inoculation campaign was on track.
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