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Vulcan Insight | EU starts diplomatic spat over vaccine “export ban” accusations

It was just one of many points European Council President Charles Michel made in his monthly newsletter on Tuesday afternoon, but his accusation of the “United Kingdom having imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory” caused an outright diplomatic spat between London and the EU institutions this week.

Although the accusation have been making the rounds in Brussels for weeks already, not least because European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made them first in the context of her institution’s spat with AstraZeneca, Mr. Michel’s accusations seemed to hit a sore spot in London’s Whitehall.

In his newsletter, President Michel sought to defend the EU’s much-attacked vaccination effort, while arguing that there will certainly be “lessons to be learned, not least on the performance of contracts signed with pharmaceutical companies.” After pleading not to lose sight of the bigger picture, he then proceeded to “set out some facts” to show that the EU is not actually behind in the vaccine race, but rather plays the responsible global actor.

While touting that the EU was a key funder of research into mRNA vaccines in past years, he stresses that, despite accusations of vaccine nationalism in response to the new transparency mechanism, the European Union continues exporting EU-made vaccines to countries around the world. That, he stresses specifically, without the need to “use vaccines for propaganda purposes” like China or Russia are doing.

In an attempt to counteract the narrative pushed around the “EU’s rollout disaster” compared to the “world-leading” rollout campaigns in Israel, the US and the UK, Mr. Michel then argued the “fact” that the European Union has continued exporting vaccines while both the US and UK have imposed “outright export bans.”

According to Michel, most of the doses used in Israel have been coming from Pfizer’s plant in Belgium. In fact, as numbers from the Commission’s transparency mechanism showed on Thursday, during the month of February, it approved 34 million doses to 31 countries, including 9.1 million doses to the UK.

While Charles Michel’s comment is correct with regard to the US’ America First doctrine under the Defence Production Act, it was the accusation of an “export ban” which immediately ruffled feathers in the UK Government circles and media.

In response, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the accusation as “completely false,” claiming that it “has not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components.” Moreover, in an escalation usually reserved for rogue states, the Foreign Office even summoned the EU’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Nicole Mannion, for discussions.

While it is true that the UK does not have any legal or tangible export restrictions or outright bans, in fact it does not need so as per Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca. When defending his company over supply shortages and apparent UK preferential status in the media and a recent European Parliament hearing on vaccine manufacturing, he repeatedly said that, even if he wanted to, AstraZeneca could not export any UK-made doses to the EU over a “UK First” agreement the UK Government had prior made with Oxford University. As such, while AstraZeneca itself is not directly prevented from exporting doses, it is tied to the “UK First” supply agreement between Oxford University and the UK Government.

According to Mr. Soriot, AstraZeneca would thus only be allowed to ship doses to the EU once it has fully supplied the UK.

Compliments of Vulcan Consulting – a member of the EACCNY.