Amid a row over vaccines between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on March 17 said that the EU may have to stop exporting COVID-19 vaccines to Britain, to ensure that there are enough doses for its own citizens.
“We see the crest of a third wave forming in member states, and we know that we need to accelerate the vaccination rates,” said von der Leyen, referring to the need to inoculate more EU citizens.
Von der Leyen made similar threats on Sunday, saying that if the Anglo-Swedish company did not fulfill its own supply obligations to the EU, the bloc could prevent Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines from reaching the UK. After all, the EU has been concerned about shortages from the company, which has mostly favored Britain. Oxford-AstraZeneca informed the EU in January that it would be unable to supply the number of vaccines it had hoped for by the end of March. Some EU leaders were deeply frustrated by the company’s announcement that it would prioritize the UK market over theirs.
A growing deadlock has clearly occurred between Brussels and London, which has prompted the EU to consider adopting more protectionist policies. Significantly, it follows a further souring of relations between the two after the completion of Brexit.
As both London and Brussels have aimed to take the lead in global vaccination efforts, the UK is currently ahead of the EU in vaccinating its population. According to Our World in Data statistics, as of March 20, Britain had vaccinated 43 percent of its population, compared to 12 percent for the EU.
The UK expects that by June, every citizen would have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lauded as a proud accomplishment for the country.
Meanwhile, on March 11, European Council President Charles Michel praised the EU’s progress, saying that it would not have been possible to develop and produce several vaccines in less than a year without Europe. He also claimed that EU solidarity had given poorer countries within the bloc access to their first doses.
However, the competition between them has raised concerns of “vaccine nationalism,” which could disrupt the vaccination rollouts in both Europe and globally. Wealthier countries have already been accused of hoarding vaccines, posing a risk of unequal vaccine distribution around the world, especially to poorer countries. Further competition between countries with more supplies could exacerbate this issue.
In February, Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general, expressed such concerns over the dangers of vaccine nationalism and called for greater global cooperation in the face of the pandemic.
“Anything that restricts the ability to get [the vaccinations] out will affect our ability to control this disease and prevent variants emerging,” he said. “The world is going to have to collaborate to get out of this.”
After all, the pandemic is also far from over, even in Europe where vaccination procedures are making progress. Germany announced that a third wave has already started, Italy has locked down once again, and the UK’s chief statistician said a new COVID wave could occur in the autumn, despite the country’s largely successful vaccine rollout.
Apart from von der Leyen’s latest statements, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine appears to have been a casualty of vaccine nationalism. Earlier in March, several EU countries suspended imports of the vaccine following reports that a few recipients in Germany, Ireland, and Norway had suffered blood clots.
Despite the fact that many EU countries have expressed concern about the vaccine’s possible risks, there has been only one case of serious blood clot per 500,000 vaccinations administered, and the European Medicines Agency stated on March 15 that there is no evidence that the Oxford vaccine causes blood clots directly.
During this controversy, UK Conservative MP Anthony Browne accused the EU of politicizing the AstraZeneca vaccine issue, while British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab called it a “Brexit sulk”. The Italian health minister also said that it was a “political decision” from several EU member states, a further suggestion that tensions over Brexit may have driven the move.
Tensions over vaccine products have risen in tandem with Brexit-related tensions. The EU launched legal proceedings against Britain on March 15 in response to London’s efforts to extend the Brexit grace period on food imports to Northern Ireland. However, in January, the EU was also accused of trying to block vaccine shipments from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, which would then reach the rest of the UK. These charges, however, were refuted by Brussels.
Additionally, the EU came under fire from human rights groups and health experts in January, after imposing monitors on the tracking of its vaccine products, leading to accusations that the EU was attempting to limit exports outside of the bloc. The WHO also criticized the EU, saying that this further hampered the ability of poorer countries to obtain vaccines, thereby prolonging the pandemic.
Although Charles Michel said he was “shocked” by accusations that the EU was causing vaccine nationalism, the EU previously justified keeping these monitors to “protect” its citizens, suggesting that it is trying to give member states preferential treatment.
The EU has still accused the UK and the US of not delivering enough vaccine doses to the bloc, and von der Leyen said that the EU simply wants its “fair share” of vaccines. Michel accused the UK of imposing a ban on vaccine exports, which Boris Johnson rejected.
“Let me be clear: we have not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine components,” Johnson told the UK parliament on March 10.
Additionally, research from London’s Royal Holloway University reveals that a large majority of the British population would rather prioritize vaccinating the UK public first, indicating that national preservation of vaccines is a common concern across the West.
Moreover, Pfizer has sought to guarantee its intellectual property rights over the vaccine it developed in partnership with BioNTech, in order to prevent other companies from gaining access to the production methods. This would help boost the company’s own profits. This practice has been criticized for slowing the mass production of vaccine products, and as the EU backed this policy, charities such as Oxfam have accused  it of increasing vaccine nationalism.
Even though the UK and the EU have sought to present themselves as authoritative figures in the fight against the pandemic by conducting their own vaccine drives, such divisions create significant obstacles to combating the pandemic. It demonstrates the importance of increased international cooperation in order to avoid new problems from emerging, such as new strains in less vaccinated parts of the world.