EU exports millions of vaccine doses despite supply crunch at home

The New York Times
Brussels, BelgiumWritten By: Matina Stevis-Gridneff © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Mar 10, 2021, 07:33 PM IST


Story highlights

The bloc, whose 27 nations are home to 450 million people, came under criticism last week when Italy used an export-control mechanism to block a small shipment of vaccines to Australia

The European Union exported 25 million doses of vaccines produced in its territory last month to 31 countries around the world, with Britain and Canada the top destinations, just as the bloc saw its own supply cut drastically by pharmaceutical companies, slowing down vaccination efforts and stoking a political crisis at home.

The bloc, whose 27 nations are home to 450 million people, came under criticism last week when Italy used an export-control mechanism to block a small shipment of vaccines to Australia. The move was criticized as protectionist and in sharp contrast to the EU’s mantra of free markets and global solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

The issue of vaccine production and exports has also created a bitter dispute between the EU and Britain, a recently departed member, amid accusations that the bloc wants to deprive the country of vaccine doses out of spite, in part because Britain is doing so much better with its rollout.

The tensions culminated in a diplomatic spat Wednesday after a top EU official accused the United States and Britain of bringing in an “outright ban” on exports — a charge that the British government vehemently denied.

Practically speaking, ban or no ban, Britain is not exporting vaccines authorized for use at home, and the country has said it would be prepared to give excess doses to neighbouring Ireland, though only after it was done with its vaccination efforts at home.

The U.S. has also been holding onto doses, in part through a wartime mechanism known as the Defense Production Act, which gives the federal government greater control over industrial production. President Joe Biden promised last week that all adults in America would have at least one vaccine dose offered to them by May.

But information made public for the first time, recorded in detailed internal documents seen by The New York Times, shows that the EU, far from being protectionist, is in fact a vaccine exporting powerhouse.

Of the 25 million vaccine doses made in EU-based facilities that were exported between Feb. 1 (when the export mechanism came into force) and March 1, more than 8 million doses went to Britain.

And while the U.S. kept doses for itself, the EU shipped 651,000 vaccines to the U.S. last month and made vaccines that immunized its neighbours: The second-largest recipient of EU-made vaccines was Canada, which received more than 3 million doses last month, while the fourth-largest was Mexico, receiving nearly 2.5 million vaccine doses produced in the bloc.

Whether to reveal this data has been hotly debated in the corridors of power at the European Commission, the EU executive branch, which is at the heart of procuring the vaccines and has suffered the biggest political blow for the underwhelming rollout.

On the one hand, several senior EU officials said, revealing the immense export efforts that are keeping countries around the world vaccinated and helping the world economy restart would help restore Europe’s reputation. On the other hand, it would outrage European citizens who are waiting for their shots while watching Americans, Britons, Israelis and others race past them into resuming public life, health and economic activity.

As things stand, nearly 58 per cent of Israelis have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. The figure is 33 per cent for people in Britain, 18 per cent for the U.S., and 6.5 per cent of people in the EU, data collected by OurWorldInData shows.

The bloc was weeks behind the U.S. and Britain in sealing deals with pharmaceutical firms last year but did secure a broad portfolio of vaccines on favourable terms on behalf of its members. That granted them relatively quick access to immunization that most would not have dreamed of had they been acting alone.

But within weeks of starting its rollout in late December, the bloc began suffering supply shocks. First, Pfizer said it was cutting deliveries to upgrade its facilities. Then AstraZeneca told the bloc that it would deliver only 31 million of a promised 80 million doses in the first quarter of this year.

Moderna, whose vaccine has also been approved for use by the bloc, has likewise had small problems with supply. Many EU countries have also done a poor job getting the vaccines they do have to their citizens because of poor organization and logistics.

The rollout in the bloc has been so poor that member states have been tempted by black-market offers of extra doses, and several are tapping unauthorized vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik V, which is still under review for use in the bloc.

Hopes that these woes could be eased in the second quarter of this year have largely hinged on AstraZeneca’s supply picking up and a robust delivery plan by Johnson & Johnson, whose COVID-19 vaccine is set to be authorized by the EU regulator Thursday.

Yet there are concerns that Johnson & Johnson could also be slashing supply to the bloc, prompting a request by the bloc to the U.S. government for a loan of 10 million doses. Officials in the U.S. and the EU said the request had been denied.