The EU will empower member states to block exports of vaccines, forcing pharmaceutical companies to seek authorisation before shipping the life-saving jabs out of the bloc.
The move comes as dose shortages and a confrontation with AstraZeneca over supplies have left the EU’s vaccination strategy in disarray, with French authorities instructing hospitals in Paris to suspend first injections due to the shortfall.
EU officials said the new system would force companies to disclose export plans, as Brussels sought to reassert control of doses manufactured inside the bloc.
“Any exporting company would send into national authorities their plan of what to export, when, to whom and so on,” one EU official said. “National authorities would then be allowed to check that, give an authorisation or a refusal.”
A day after Madrid said it had been forced to pause vaccinations for 10 days, authorities in Paris, the northern Hauts de France and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté regions — representing a third of the French population — delayed first vaccine injections for two to four weeks to conserve doses for those in need of their second and final injection.
Portugal, meanwhile, said it now expected to take up to two months longer than initially planned to complete the first phase of its vaccinations. Francisco Ramos, head of the country’s vaccination task force, said only about 1.5m vaccine doses were likely to be delivered in the first quarter, compared with almost 3m that Portugal had initially hoped to receive.
Member states anger at the shortages has focused particularly on AstraZeneca, which is awaiting expected authorisation of its vaccine in the EU on Friday. An EU official on Wednesday said the drug company was planning to deliver only a quarter of the previously planned 100m or more doses in the first quarter due to production problems at EU manufacturing sites.
As the confrontation between the company and the bloc escalated on Thursday, Belgian authorities said the European Commission had asked them to inspect production flow at the facility responsible for the AstraZeneca shortfall. The review would cover multiple production sites and involve several authorities, the Belgian government said. The commission did not respond to a request for comment.
The commission and EU capitals have also asked whether vaccines produced inside the EU have previously been shipped to the UK, and demanded that UK-produced vaccines be used to make up the AstraZeneca shortfall.
The new export powers, to be unveiled by the commission on Friday, will allow member states to check whether a shipment was “legitimate” and prevent exports that would violate advance purchase agreements the EU has struck with pharma companies, according to an EU official.
The new rules would potentially affect supplies of all three western-made vaccines currently available for use, as all have manufacturing operations in the EU. BioNTech/Pfizer supplies the whole world apart from the US from its European plants, while Moderna produces its non-US vaccine supply in Switzerland but fills and finishes the vials in Spain.
The EU’s export scheme would be put in place for the first quarter of 2021, but with the possibility for it to be prolonged. An EU official said that, in practice, they expected any rejections of exports to be “rare".
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, has refused to be drawn into the dispute between the EU and AstraZeneca.
“Our objective is to let the EU work through this and avoid negative consequences,” said one British official. “The idea of export controls on vaccines would not just be bad for Europe it would be bad for the world.”
Downing Street fears that an outbreak of “vaccine nationalism” would have severe geopolitical consequences for the west, creating the impression that western democracies were unable to protect their people from the pandemic.
Charles Michel, European Council president, wrote to the leaders of Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Greece calling for the EU to explore the use of new legal powers and “enforcement measures” to ramp up vaccine production in the EU.
In the letter, seen by the Financial Times, he floated the use of EU treaty powers intended to address “severe difficulties” arising in the supply of certain products.
Mr Michel did not specify how such a legal mechanism would work, but one EU official suggested it could enable the bloc to require companies to share patents, licences and knowhow needed to broaden vaccine production.
“I believe this solution would demonstrate the EU’s strength and reliability in protecting its citizens' health over and above all other considerations,” said Mr Michel.
Additional reporting by George Parker in London and Peter Wise in Lisbon