The European Commission has adjusted its mechanism to control exports of COVID-19 vaccines to seek ‘fairness’ in the global supply chain, dismissing claims of vaccine protectionism.
Launched in early February, the export mechanism was originally conceived to ensure transparency by better tracking where vaccine exports are directed.
Companies manufacturing vaccines in Europe require authorisation from national authorities – which can be denied under certain conditions – before shipping vaccines outside the EU.
As the mechanism was put forward in response to the suspicion that vaccine-maker AstraZeneca was prioritising the UK supply over the EU one, it was soon dubbed an attempt at vaccine protectionism.
The Commission has tried to dismiss such allegations saying that the mechanism is not a real export ban but rather an authorisation mechanism aimed at transparency.
Since the tool was introduced, the Commission has granted 380 requests to export, with only one negative decision concerning a shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from Italy to Australia.
“We have used this mechanism in a balanced way,” said Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, adding that exports have been authorised once it was established that they did not threaten the contractual commitments undertaken by pharmaceutical companies under their advanced purchase agreements (APAs) with the EU executive.
The mechanism has been considered successful so far by the Commission, who also acknowledged that more exports have been reported than before the system was introduced.
“We see, however, that continued shortfalls in production are not distributed fairly across different contracting countries,” said Dombrovksis.
As the shortfalls continue, the EU decided to strengthen the mechanism on Wednesday (24 March) with an adjustment to the regulation that basically provides certain criteria that member states and the Commission should take into account when deciding on export authorisations.
The new criteria should be seen as guiding principles, but decisions to authorise exports are going to be taken on a case-by-case basis, taking these principles into account.
The case-by-case reference is essential as the new conditions do not target any specific country or company or apply to any particular situation.
In the original proposal, the focus was more on the fulfilment of the APAs and though this issue is not off the table, the adjustment aims to achieve the broader purpose of security of supply.
Therefore, security of supply is introduced as a category under which member states are assessing export requests, while the other two new factors are reciprocity and proportionality.
Reciprocity means that exports authorisation could be not granted to countries that not allow shipment of doses produced in their national facilities to Europe.
“This is not a tit for tat but we need to have in mind that there is a fair share,” explained a Commission official, adding that the measure is WTO-compliant.
Proportionality could be even more controversial as it implies that the vaccination rate in importing countries needs to be reflected in the assessment.
In practice, this means that in granting the authorisation, national authorities and the Commission will take into consideration if countries have already ensured a certain vaccination rate and if it is higher than the one in the EU.
“The vaccination rate in a given country is, per se, not a threat. But the question is more how to ensure fairness,” another EU official said, adding that fairness entails looking at the current situation in a given country.
The vaccination rate will not be the only element as the epidemiological situation will also be factored in.
“Our primary objective is that there is enough supply for Europe. And one way is to look at the proportionality,” the EU official concluded.
Vaccine war is looming
In presenting the adjustment to the export mechanism, the Commission insisted on fighting the misperception that it is an export ban, as it could trigger retaliation and disrupt the global supply chain
“It’s something worth paying a lot of attention to because once supply chains are disrupted, it’s very difficult to rebuild them,” said a third EU source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Dombrovskis told a press conference that “the EU is the only OECD producer that continues to export vaccines to countries that have production capacities of their own. But when these countries do not export to the EU, there is no reciprocity”.
Several EU officials insisted that Europe is currently the bloc exporting more doses as the United States has adopted an America first approach and the UK is having a prioritisation in place that could be seen as a de facto export ban.
On Wednesday (24 March), India temporarily put on hold all exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying infections in the country have risen and so have domestic demands, Reuters reported.
A major blockade of exports at this crucial stage of the fight against the pandemic heightens the risk of a global vaccine war.
For this reason, the UK and the EU attempted to cool down vaccine tensions with a joint statement issued ahead of the European Council on Thursday (25 March).
“In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges,” the statement reads.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]