fter weeks of tensions over Covid vaccine supplies, the UK government and European Commission have said they are working together to improve their relationship over the pandemic.
They said they wanted to “create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens”.
The Commission earlier proposed tougher export controls on vaccines, amid tensions over AstraZeneca supplies.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that “blockades” were not “sensible”.
The joint EU-UK statement said that “openness and global co-operation” would be key to tackling the pandemic.
However, there was little harmony earlier when the Commission announced plans for all shipments of vaccines to be assessed on the destination country’s rate of vaccinations and vaccine exports. The proposals, to be put before EU leaders on Thursday, are seen as focused on the UK and US in particular.
Amid continuing anger in Europe at the UK-Swedish pharmaceutical company, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that AstraZeneca’s failure to deliver on its vaccine commitments was “totally unacceptable”.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides rejected a suggestion that the European Commission’s aim was to punish the UK in particular: “We’re dealing with a pandemic and this is not seeking to punish any countries.”
Asked whether the UK might retaliate, Mr Johnson told MPs he did not believe “that blockades of either vaccines or of medicines, of ingredients for vaccines” would be “sensible”. Companies might draw conclusions about future investments “in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed”, he added.
Italy confirms police ‘inspection’
In a separate development, it emerged that Italian military police had raided a plant at the weekend where 29 million AZ doses had been processed in Anagni near Rome.
The Italian government said the Carabinieri health squad had gone to “verify” batches after a request by the European Commission. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told the BBC that he had asked for the raid to ensure everything was on track and it had been “helpful to understand what was happening in Italy”.
The plant has a contract with AstraZeneca to fill the vials with vaccine and label them, and will do the same for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is also approved for use in the EU.
La Stampa newspaper reported that the UK was a possible destination for some of the doses but a UK government official said it was not expecting such a delivery.
The Italian government said “the batches that were inspected were all aimed for Belgium”. AstraZeneca said 16 million of the doses were “waiting for quality control release to be dispatched to Europe” while the other 13 million were to go to countries in the Covax vaccine-sharing scheme.
The raid comes weeks after the Italian government blocked the export of 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, as part of new EU regulations allowing a shipment to be stopped if a company fails to meet its obligations to the 27 member states.
As infections rise across Europe, EU member states are trying to speed up Covid vaccination campaigns after a sluggish start, blamed partly on delayed deliveries of the AZ drug as well as safety checks.
Germany had announced a strict five-day lockdown over Easter, but in a dramatic announcement on Wednesday Chancellor Angela Merkel called it off after talks with state leaders. “This mistake is my mistake alone,” she said, explaining that it had been decided with the best of intentions.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Wednesday that on average 170,000 daily vaccinations had been carried out this month and that the objective was to increase that to half a million. He highlighted the large number of people and sites involved in the UK’s vaccine drive.
“We must ask pharmaceutical companies to fully respect their commitments on a European level,” Mr Draghi said, calling for a supply chain that was not vulnerable to shocks and decisions made elsewhere.
Italy is one of 19 EU countries seeing a rise in Covid infections, according to the EU. Poland has reported a record 29,978 cases in the past 24 hours and France is considering whether to extend lockdown measures to three more regions including the Rhône.
What the Commission is planning
The tougher export controls are most like to affect vaccine-exporting countries that have higher vaccination rates than the EU, such as the UK and US.
The key criteria for the proposed regulations are “reciprocity” and “proportionality”:
• The EU says there is no reciprocity if a country importing vaccines from the EU restricts exports itself either by law or other means, so “it may be appropriate to consider whether exports to this country are justified”
• Member states and the Commission will also consider the epidemiological situation in that non-EU country, its vaccination rate and existing availability of Covid-19 vaccines.
There will be no outright export bans, which are opposed by countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium.
Vaccine manufacturers would be assessed to see if they were fulfilling their contract with the EU, although no specific algorithm is planned.
Is the UK being targeted?
In his interview with the BBC, Thierry Breton insisted it was the responsibility of AstraZeneca, not of the UK government or the European Commission. “I know that there’s some tension, which is normal, but as long as we have transparency, I think we’ll be able to be normalised.”
If AstraZeneca had provided the agreed 320 million doses to the EU, the member states would have been exactly at the same rate of vaccination as the UK, “so we have been heavily penalised and we just want to understand why”. AstraZeneca denies that it is failing to honour its contract with the EU.
A UK government spokesperson 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.”
Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen complained that the EU had exported more than 10 million doses to the UK but the UK had so far exported none in return.
Her colleagues added that this had to be seen in the context of the EU being both a global Covid hotspot and also the biggest exporter of vaccines. Since the end of January, EU countries have exported 43 million doses of vaccine to 33 countries not subject to export authorisation, they say.
UK sources insist vital components are being sent to the continent, for example for the Pfizer vaccine, and they have emphasised the UK’s role in investing early in vaccine development, BBC correspondent Nick Beake reports.
The EU’s 27 leaders will assess the proposals at a summit on Thursday, in which US President Joe Biden will also take part via video.