Von der Leyen threatens UK with cutting off vaccines if there is no reciprocity

Commission President calls on Brits to allow EU doses to be sold to the EU

3 min
The President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen.

BrusselsSince the beginning of February, the European Union has exported 44 million vaccines to 33 different countries. The Old Continent is a powerhouse in the production of vaccines but, while it sees millions of doses leaving its territory, its citizens are not being immunised at the same rate as the other major vaccine-producing powers. The figures were given on Wednesday by the President of the European Commission herself, Ursula von der Leyen, who was blunt: "It is difficult to explain to Europeans how our pharmaceutical companies deliver to the whole world and we have difficulties. We export to some thirty countries but nothing reaches us". Von der Leyen has said enough after the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced that in the second quarter it will not reach 50% of the committed doses and has threatened the United Kingdom - where this Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company produces - to stop exports to its territory if "there is no reciprocity".

The harsh message from the president of the EU executive initially referred to all sectors and countries where European pharmaceutical companies export, but was clearly aimed at London because, as the German explained, the UK is "the main export destination for EU vaccines", with 10 million doses sent there since January, mainly from Pfizer/BioNTech. The EU has vaccinated 9.8% of its population with a single dose, while in the UK the percentage is 37%.

That is why the Commission President has threatened to look at "all available options" to ensure that European citizens receive the vaccines as soon as possible. Von der Leyen not only spoke of taking into account reciprocity when authorizing the export of vaccines, controlled since February with a special mechanism, but also taking into account whether the countries that receive vaccines also produce them and if they have a higher percentage of immunized population than the European Union: "I do not exclude any possibilities", she said.

Shortly after hearing the statements of the President of the Commission, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Dominic Raab, has expressed his surprise, in statements to Reuters, and has asked Von der Leyen for explanations: "I think a little bit of an explanation is needed because the world is watching. In addition - Raab added - they break the direct guarantees we had from the Commission. We expect these guarantees and the contracted legal supply to be respected. Frankly, I am surprised that we are having this conversation", he said.

AstraZeneca is one of the main problems in achieving the goal of vaccinating 70% of the EU adult population by the summer because it is the main vaccine in the EU vaccination strategy. It is the company with which the European Commission had negotiated more doses and which was expected to obtain authorization first, but theirs has been a relationship based on disappointments. In the first quarter, the pharmaceutical company expects to deliver only 30 million of the 90 million it had promised, and in the second quarter, only 70 million of the 180 million will be delivered. One must add, to this, the millions of doses that are closed in refrigerators in countries like Spain, Germany and France due to the cases of thrombosis that have triggered all the alarms awaiting a new opinion of the European Medicines Agency (EME) on Thursday. However, of the 70 million doses delivered, only 51 million have been administered, which implies that the problem is not only related to the delivery of doses.

Von der Leyen admitted that all these obstacles complicate the acceleration of the vaccination campaign, but she assured that it is still possible to achieve the objective of having half of the EU's adult citizens immunised by the end of June in order to close the summer with 70%. Brussels supports this forecast with the following figures: it estimates that 100 million doses will have been distributed in the first quarter and that between April and June a further 360 million doses will arrive. The weight that was initially given to AstraZeneca now falls to Pfizer/BioNTech, from which it expects to receive 200 million in the second quarter. It is also counting on 55 million from Johnson&Johnson (which is single-dose) and 35 million from Moderna.

On the thrombosis problems with the AstraZeneca vaccine, Von der Leyen said she is "confident" but also used the opportunity to defend the vaccine approval system chosen in the EU, which involves a two-week "delay" compared to other countries but prioritises safety: "We did not take the shortcut of an emergency authorisation but opted for one that costs two to three weeks of delay for a good reason. But it is very important that these new vaccines are subject to a thorough screening process", she said.