The European Union is ready to block exports of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to Britain as a diplomatic row between Brussels and London intensifies.
The European Commission said vaccine ingredients made at a factory in the Netherlands must stay put until AstraZeneca fulfils its delivery commitments to Europe.
The plant, in Leiden, is run by sub-contractor Halix, which is listed as a supplier of vaccines in the contracts AstraZeneca signed with Britain and the EU.
“The Brits are insisting that the Halix plant in the Netherlands must deliver the drug substance produced there to them. That doesn’t work,” an EU official said.
“What is produced in Halix has to go to the EU.”
But UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to play down the row.
“I’m reassured by talking to EU partners over the last few months that they don’t want to see blockades,” he said on Monday.
“That’s very, very important.”
Earlier on Monday the European Commission’s spokesman Eric Mamer said it was not about seeking to stop exports but ensuring “that companies deliver on their commitments”.
“What our position is, is that we expect AstraZeneca to deliver the doses to the European Union that have been contracted. Contacts are ongoing with the company,” he said.
Last week, the EU’s medicines regulator ruled the AstraZeneca shot was safe after more than a dozen European countries suspended its use amid reports linking it to a small number of serious blood clot incidents.
Despite the official backing, new polls show people in France, Germany, Spain and Italy consider the vaccine unsafe.
Fears over blood clotting have had little effect on the British public’s attitude towards the drug, a YouGov poll found.
In France, 61 per cent said it was unsafe but 23 per cent said it was safe, while 55 per cent of Germans said it was unsafe and 32 per cent safe.
Many were already wary of the AstraZeneca vaccine after countries such as France and Germany questioned its effectiveness and didn’t approve it for over-65s, and the blood clot fears appear to have further damaged its reputation.
France resumed usage of the AstraZeneca shot but then said it should only be given to people aged 55 and over.
A late-stage study released by the company on Monday found its vaccine was 79 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19, and 100 per cent effective at preventing severe disease, and an independent monitoring board found no safety concerns.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday that AstraZeneca could be banned from exporting its vaccine out of the bloc if it did not meet delivery expectations.
“This is a message to AstraZeneca: You fulfil your part of the deal toward Europe before you start to deliver to other countries,” she told Funke Media Group.
She had already threatened to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure “reciprocity” with other suppliers.
“All options are on the table. We are in the crisis of the century,” Ms von der Leyen said last week. “We have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible.”
It is part of a wider disagreement between AstraZeneca and the EU, after the company failed to meet delivery targets.
On Sunday, the EU threat was dismissed by UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace, who said attempts to restrict supply would backfire.
“The commission knows deep down that this would be counterproductive,” Mr Wallace told Sky News.
“They’re under tremendous political pressure at the European Commission. It would damage the EU’s relations globally if they should renege on these contracts.”
Mr Johnson is reportedly seeking support from other EU leaders, including his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte, who favoured a more conciliatory approach to the dispute.
Mr Johnson is likely to lobby leaders of key EU countries including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
The UK’s Social Care Minister Helen Whately on Monday said: “The EU and non-EU countries should not follow vaccine nationalism or vaccine protectionism”.
AstraZeneca has yet to seek EU approval for Halix, but said on Monday it expects to receive it at the end of March or beginning of April. Without regulatory approval, vaccines produced at Halix cannot be used in the bloc.
The EU official said there were no outstanding requests for UK exports from the production plant in the Netherlands, but should such a request be made it would probably be rejected.
More than 10 million vaccine doses have been exported across the English Channel to Britain, although officials said that very few of these shipments contained the AstraZeneca vaccine or its ingredients.
Britain has surged ahead of Europe in its inoculation efforts, with nearly half of the eligible population having received at least one shot.
But authorities fear a supply crunch will severely curtail its vaccination campaign in the coming weeks.
Analysis published by The Guardian newspaper showed that Britain faced a two-month delay in the event of an EU export ban, which would probably derail the planned reopening of the UK economy in the summer.
The boost to the EU’s stockpile would speed up its efforts by “just over a week”, the analysis revealed.
On Sunday, British health authorities announced that they had administered 844,285 coronavirus doses that day, breaking the record set the previous day.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted the following message:
Mr Johnson, who received the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday, urged everyone to accept a shot when invited to have one.
The daily release of Covid-19 data in the UK showed 33 new deaths were recorded on Sunday, the lowest figure since October and down from peaks of more than 1,000 deaths a day in January and February.
Meanwhile, Europe is grappling with a resurgent wave of the coronavirus.
Germany is reportedly set to extend its national lockdown until April 12, while Poland, parts of France and Ukraine’s capital Kiev also face new social restrictions.