The EU has landed in hot water following its row with Anglo-Swedish Covid vaccine-producer AstraZeneca and the European Commission’s decision to frustrate efforts to transport shipments from EU countries to the UK. Why did the EU feel the need to take such drastic steps and what will the distribution of vaccines look like in Europe in the coming months?
Prior to the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the EU made a deal with the company in August 2020 which would see 300 million vaccines being distributed across the bloc in 2021, with an option for a further 100 million to be produced if required. Officials hoped that 80 million doses would become available in the first quarter of 2021 following final approval (which was completed last week).
However, such hopes were dashed when AstraZeneca informed the Commission that, due to production problems in its Belgian and Dutch factories, it would only have 31 million doses available for the first quarter. This was met with fury from the European Commission, who pointed out that further doses could be provided from the Anglo-Swedish company’s factories in Britain. The UK, who up to now have been receiving far higher numbers of vaccines than the current EU average, have resisted efforts to export vaccines to Europe.
As part of its attempt to frustrate shipments of Covid vaccines from EU countries to Britain, the European Commission triggered Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol with respect to Covid vaccines, which was aimed at preventing Northern Ireland from being used as a backdoor for vaccines to be shipped from the EU to Britain. This was met with public outcry, in particular from Irish politicians north and south of the border.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin commented that he was not pre-informed of the Commission’s decision to trigger Article 16 and European officials were said to have been “blindsided” by the decision. First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster, who has supported Brexit and was opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement, was particularly vociferous in her criticism of this decision, branding it an “incredible act of hostility” by the European Commission.
Following this outcry, the Commission swiftly stepped back from its threat to trigger Article 16 (though continued to reserve judgment for its future use). In addition, the EU announced that AstraZeneca would supply an additional 9 million doses of the vaccine by March, bringing the total to 40 million doses for the first quarter of 2021. This still falls far short of initial expectations but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has described it as a “step forward”. Export controls of vaccine shipments to Britain have also been cancelled as confirmed by EU ambassador to Britain Joao Vale de Almeida.
The controversy has not made the EU any friends, with one diplomat commenting that “This hasn't been a great advertisement for handing over powers to Brussels.” Further, director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed dismay at this display of “vaccine nationalism” and some pharmaceutical companies have been reported to be “alarmed” at the EU’s conduct.
Other producers of the vaccine, including Pfizer and BioNtech have faced their own difficulties with production and are revamping their production facilities to improve output in the next quarter. They have avoided scrutiny from the EU as they have been deemed to have spread the impact of the vaccine shortage fairly across the member states. In any case, it appears supply disruptions for each of the major Covid vaccine producers will continue for the next couple of months in the EU, and it will not be until spring that significant percentages of the European population are fully inoculated from the coronavirus pandemic.