BRUSSELS: The European Union on Wednesday (Mar 24) tightened its oversight of coronavirus vaccine exports, giving it greater scope to block shipments to countries with higher inoculation rates such as Britain, or which are not sharing doses they produce.
Member states are struggling to contain a third wave of the epidemic and kick-start vaccine programmes slowed by a shortfall in deliveries, and Britain has warned the bloc against resorting "vaccine nationalism".
But its trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis said the EU was not targeting any specific country, and London and Brussels said later in the day they were working towards creating a "win-win situation" to expand vaccine supply.
The new rules set out by the European Commission, which oversees EU trade policy, expand existing measures aimed at ensuring that planned exports by drugmakers do not threaten the bloc's supply.
They widen the net by adding 17 previously exempt countries - including Israel, Norway and Switzerland - to the list of countries for which exports of EU-produced vaccines require licences.
EU officials say export restrictions could also kick in if manufacturers do not respect quarterly vaccine contracts but backload supplies towards the end of the period.
Based on the criteria, restrictions could be tightest for AstraZeneca vaccines, which have experienced the largest delivery shortfalls.
The granting of export licences will be based on reciprocity - meaning the epidemiological situation, vaccination rate and access to shots in the destination country - and the British government and the Commission said they had discussed ways of ensuring a "reciprocally beneficial relationship" on COVID-19.
"We are working on specific steps we can take ... to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens," they said in a joint statement issued after the EU's announcement.
DIVIDED OVER BRITAIN
The bloc, which has also approved shots by Pfizer-BionTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, said it had exported 43 million doses to 33 countries since January, including Britain at 10.9 million doses, followed by Canada, Japan and Mexico.
So far some 380 vaccine export requests from EU countries have been granted, with only one - from Italy to Australia - being blocked.
Dombrovskis said future licence requests would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Commission proposal - which will come into force unless a "qualified majority" of member states oppose it, which is very unlikely - will be discussed on Thursday by EU leaders, who are nevertheless divided over its implementation.
While France, Germany and Italy broadly support tighter export curbs on countries that do not reciprocate, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland are cautious about cutting off Britain.
AstraZeneca doses were supposed to be the vaccination for the EU masses, but deliveries have and will be far lower than initially indicated.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the situation in many EU countries was "alarming", with increasing cases in 19 states and rising fatalities in eight.
EU countries have given at least one dose to about 10 per cent of their adult populations and have watched Britain provide at least one vaccination to over half of all adults, suffering almost no delivery problems, despite the same plants officially supplying both.