The EU chief said AstraZeneca could see its COVID vaccine exports blocked if it does not meet its contractual obligations.
European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen has threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines if the bloc does not receive the promised deliveries first, escalating a row that has fueled international tensions.
“We have the option of banning a planned export. This is the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfill your contract with Europe before you start delivering to other countries, ”von der Leyen told German media group Funke on Saturday.
The warning comes as the EU struggles to speed up its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, just as many member states face a third wave of coronavirus and new brakes on public life.
Von der Leyen said Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca had delivered just 30% of the 90 million doses of vaccine it had promised for the first quarter of the year.
The company has blamed production delays at its EU factories, but EU officials are furious that AstraZeneca was able to deliver its contract in the UK while failing on the continent.
The President of the European Commission, von der Leyen, had already threatened Wednesday to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of COVID-19 vaccines in order to ensure “reciprocity” with other suppliers.
In the interview with German newspapers, von der Leyen reiterated that the EU’s contract with AstraZeneca stipulates that vaccines for the block will be produced at factories in the EU and the UK.
“But we haven’t received anything from the British, even if we deliver to them,” she said, adding that the European Commission had sent an “official letter” to the company complaining.
EU-based manufacturers have shipped 41 million doses of the vaccine to 33 countries since early February, said von der Leyen, making the bloc one of the world’s largest export regions for COVID-19 vaccines.
“I cannot explain to European citizens why we export millions of doses of vaccines to countries which produce vaccines themselves and do not send anything back to us,” said von der Leyen.
She said the commission had sent a “formal reminder” to AstraZeneca regarding this matter.
The EU has already set up a special surveillance of vaccine exports in which manufacturers contracted to supply Europe must declare if they intend to export doses outside the bloc.
Most of the EU’s concerns are with the UK, where the vaccination campaign has progressed at a much faster pace.
Brussels has accused London of operating a de facto export ban to make its vaccine a success, a claim furiously denied by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The EU export ban mechanism must first be triggered in a Member State and then approved by the European Commission before it can be applied.
So far, the mechanism has only been applied once, with Italy blocking the export of a shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, citing a “persistent shortage” and ” delays in supply ”.
Not all EU members support export bans, which could disrupt global supply chains, and countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have called for caution.
The EU’s troubled relationship with AstraZeneca suffered another blow earlier this month when several countries suspended use of its vaccine over fears it could cause blood clots.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA), however, on Thursday declared the vaccine “safe and effective” and vaccinations have since resumed in some countries.
“Confidence in vaccines is extremely important to all of us around the world,” UK Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
“This is why, through our presidency, the G7 is leading a program of communication on confidence in vaccines not only to the European Union or the United Kingdom, but also to the rest of the world, because there is a tsunami of disinformation that worries people. ”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi have said they will take the AstraZeneca vaccine if offered, in a bid to build confidence in the coup.