European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has threatened to block vaccine exports to the UK and other countries with markedly higher rollouts of coronavirus jabs.
It has decided not to approve vaccines on an emergency basis, as the UK’s regulator – the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – has done.
With the EU facing a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic and less than a tenth of its population vaccinated, Ms von der Leyen accused AstraZeneca – which helped develop the Oxford University vaccine – of having “underproduced and underdelivered” to the bloc.
She warned she was “ready to use whatever tool we need” to ensure “Europe gets its fair share”.
“We are in the crisis of the century,” she told a news briefing.
“If this situation does not change, we will have to reflect on how to make exports to vaccine-producing countries, dependent on their level of openness.
“We will reflect on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate.”
Downing Street said in response that the UK expects Brussels to “stand by its commitment” not to “restrict exports by companies where they are fulfilling their contractual responsibilities”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Ms von der Leyen should explain her remarks.
“I think it takes some explaining because the world’s watching… it also cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the commission,” he told the Reuters news agency.
“We expect those assurances and legal contracted supply to be respected. Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation.
“It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.”
The 27-nation bloc has been facing an acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines for some time.
Ms von der Leyen spoke as six EU countries complained about reduced deliveries that are hampering the bloc’s troubled inoculation programme.
She was asked why the Commission was effectively sparking a “vaccine war with the UK” over exports of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, given that a large number of doses are laying unused in some member states due to fears over side-effects.
In response to a suggestion that her remarks were designed to distract from the bloc’s slow vaccine rollout, she said she wanted to highlight the need for “reciprocity”.
And she insisted: “I trust AstraZeneca, I trust the vaccines.”
Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses for Europe and the UK are being produced in BioNTech’s German manufacturing sites, as well as in Pfizer’s manufacturing site in Belgium.
Ms von der Leyen said the EU has granted 314 requests for vaccine exports and has only refused one since authorisation was introduced on 1 February.
She said the flow of vaccines was smooth with the United States, but voiced frustration over lack of deliveries of the Oxford vaccine from Britain.
“We are still waiting for doses to come from the UK,” she said.
The EU chief has been under pressure over the EU’s handling of the bloc’s vaccination rollout, with Brussels having recently engaged in a bitter row with drugmaker AstraZeneca.
The dispute, which at one point saw the EU controversially threaten to override the Brexit agreement with the UK over the Irish border, came after AstraZeneca said the initial number of doses it could supply to the EU would be lower than first thought, due to manufacturing issues.
Ms von der Leyen has previously admitted a country on its own – such as the UK – can act as a “speedboat” compared with the EU’s “tanker” in the delivery of coronavirus jabs.
However her latest comments – which suggest the EU will seek to safeguard scarce vaccine doses for its own citizens – risks escalating tensions once again with the UK.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “I would point you back to the conversation the prime minister had with Ursula von der Leyen earlier this year. She confirmed then that the focus of their mechanism was on transparency and not intended to restrict exports by companies where they are fulfilling their contractual responsibilities.
“It remains the case we would expect the EU to continue to stand by its commitment.”
The EU’s sluggish vaccine campaign also threatens to delay the bloc’s proposals to create a vaccine passport that could allow people to travel more freely in time for the summer holidays.
Its “digital green pass” would provide proof a person has been vaccinated, as well as test results for those not yet inoculated and information on recovery for people who have had COVID-19.
Some southern European countries such as Spain and Greece back the move which would unlock the bloc’s tourism sector which has been badly-hit by the pandemic.
But others, including France and Belgium, have expressed concern that easing travel only for vaccinated people would be unfair.
Analysis: Export ban may be necessary – but it will do little to ease EU-UK tensions
By Michelle Clifford, Europe correspondent
You can’t help but think that some of Ursula von der Leyen’s frustrations come from a sense of personal failure.
The handling – or some would say a mishandling – of the COVID crisis has defined the start of her presidency.
By her own admission the EU was late to authorise vaccines and was overconfident about targets being met.
The bloc has fallen far behind places like the UK with the rollout so it’s extra galling that vaccines produced in the EU have made their way across the channel.
Where are the vaccines coming back, asked the president of the European Commission today as she appeared to threaten exports to the UK to safeguard doses for EU citizens.
Fewer than a tenth of the bloc’s population has been inoculated and the move by some countries to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of reports of blood clots hasn’t helped progress.
Ms Von der Leyen took aim at AstraZeneca today saying the Anglo-Swedish company has failed to deliver on millions of promised doses, that it had “under-produced and under-delivered”.
The mood in the commission hasn’t been helped by the voices from the other side of the channel calling the UK’s vaccine programme the first post-Brexit win.
That must hurt the woman presiding over the EU’s current vaccine rollout in a period she today called “the crisis of the century”.
Blocking vaccine exports to the UK might indeed be necessary to look after the EU’s own citizens but it will do little to ease cross channel tensions and will reinforce to many that the bloc failed to respond to COVID as well as its neighbours.