The EU is expected to take into account the level of vaccination coverage in a country such as the UK and its record in facilitating exports to the bloc when deciding on whether to prohibit individual vaccine shipments.
The revision of the export authorisation scheme, widening the criteria that will guide Brussels’ decisions on individual export requests, is due to be announced on Wednesday. EU leaders will then on Thursday discuss going further in controlling vaccine distribution when they meet by videoconference.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, appeared to offer an olive branch to Britain ahead of the virtual summit. “When it comes to vaccine production, there are a huge range of international interdependencies,” she said. “You have to be very careful now about imposing general export bans – you have to take a very close look at the supply chains.
“We will make our decision in a responsible manner, and at the same time we will keep talking to the British government, as Boris Johnson has already spoken with us and Emmanuel Macron on Sunday – and he is, by the way, in constant contact with the European commission. And we will certainly make our decision on Thursday, or at least hold a discussion about it.”
The move to revise the current export authorisation mechanism comes as UK and EU officials are seeking to avoid more damaging fallout from the row between Brussels and the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
The latest clash of interests has concerned an AstraZeneca facility in the Netherlands, and the competing demands of the EU and the UK on doses being produced. Officials in Brussels said they would probably block an export application from the plant if one were made.
The EU is acting, however, to also widen its scope for controlling shipments of doses out of the bloc given the slow pace of its vaccination programme and supply problems in the first quarter of this year.
Sources said the changes due to be made to the export mechanism did not amount to a ban on exports to the UK but that a broad range of criteria would now be taken into account when judging on each export request by a pharmaceutical company.
The current rules only allow exports to be blocked where a pharmaceutical company is failing to fulfil its contract to supply the EU, as the bloc claims is the case with AstraZeneca. The sole export to be prohibited by the EU so far is a shipment of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses from Italy to Australia.
The company has been able to deliver only about a quarter of the 120m doses it had committed to provide to the EU owing to yield issues in its plants on the continent.
The move to go further offers evidence of the frustration in Brussels and member states’ capitals that while vaccine suppliers based in the EU have exported about 10m doses to the UK, largely from Pfizer, doses are not coming the other way.
Last week the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she wanted to see greater reciprocity on vaccine exports.
On Tuesday the commission’s vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said vaccine suppliers had exported 41.5m doses from the EU and 70m doses had been delivered to the 27 member states, of which 52m had been administered.
Without naming the UK, he said it was unfair that some countries had at the same time not exported a “single dose” to the EU.
“Do we get the fair deal from the pharmaceutical companies?” Šefčovič asked at a press conference following a meeting of EU ministers. “Is this supply to other countries proportional to the effort the European Union and the manufacturing sites in the European Union are making in comparison with how the vaccination rates are evolving across the EU member states? So, this is what we want to hear from our partners, because I think everybody wants to have their fair share.”
It is understood that UK officials led by the former ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow, who is now the political director of the Foreign Office, are in talks over the next steps.
British officials have pointed out to their EU counterparts that components for the Pfizer vaccine are shipped from Yorkshire to the EU, and that any Brussels export authorisation system should recognise the investment per capita put into vaccine development.
The UK was the main funder of Oxford University’s vaccine programme. EU sources suggested the talks with the UK would be reflected in the final announcement.
EU heads of state and government will reflect when they meet for the videoconference on Thursday on whether they need to take on even further powers to control production and distribution of vaccines.
France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said: “We are telling AstraZeneca: we can understand you have production issues but there is no reason for Europe to be the adjustment variable. We want to avoid that AstraZeneca doses produced in Europe go to Britain when we are not receiving anything. We want to make sure the reciprocity principle applies.
“AstraZeneca says: I am experiencing delays. We say: mobilise your plants for us and if you don’t, we will block exports to the UK. We will discuss that on Thursday and Friday at the European council.”
Vaccine companies have voiced their concerns about export controls, which were echoed by Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, on Monday. He said they would be a “retrograde step”.
A spokesperson for Pfizer said: “We have been clear with all stakeholders that the free movement of goods and supply across borders is absolutely critical to Pfizer and the patients we serve.
“We are working closely with governments around the world, including the UK government and the European commission, to ensure the supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in accordance with the agreed schedules. All parties are guided by a shared sense of urgency to try to solve this devastating pandemic.”
Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, said he recognised the risk in breaking down supply chains but that Berlin wanted “fair relationships”.