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The EU announces a plan to tighten controls on coronavirus vaccine exports

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A nurse gives a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at the Woluwe-Saint-Pierre Vaccination Center in Brussels, Belgium.

Jean-Christophe Guillaume | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON – The European Commission presented new plans on Wednesday to restrict exports of Covid-19 vaccines from the 27-person bloc.

Officials are concerned that pharmaceutical companies will miss delivery targets in the coming months. And the Commission, the EU’s executive branch, wants to make sure that member states get all of the shots promised for the second quarter.

These vaccines will be essential to achieve the goal of vaccinating 70% of the EU’s adult population by the end of summer.

This tougher position from Brussels is due to the fact that the number of vaccines supplied by AstraZeneca has decreased. Earlier this year, the Anglo-Swedish company announced that it could only dispense 30 million doses of its vaccine, developed jointly with Oxford University, in the first quarter instead of around 90 million doses.

More recently, the pharmaceutical company also slashed delivery expectations for the second quarter to less than half of what the block originally expected.

The AstraZeneca shot is important for further introduction in the European Union as some countries prefer it as it is cheaper and requires less stringent maintenance conditions compared to others.

An EU official who refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue said at a press conference on Wednesday that the new proposal was “not an export ban”. “There is an ongoing shortage in vaccine production and there is also … an unfair balance in distribution,” the official said, adding that the idea is to fill that void and improve vaccine supply in a balanced way .

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, suggested last week that the EU should consider stricter vaccine controls. She claimed at the time that while the EU had exported 41 million cans of Covid-19 shots to 33 countries around the world since January, some nations have not shown the same level of reciprocity.

“Not against Great Britain”

The renewed stance in Brussels could pose a problem for the UK, which has been the largest recipient of coronavirus shots made in the EU and whose vaccination rate is well above that of the EU.

“It is not against the UK, it is to ensure that AstraZeneca honors its commitments to the European Union,” Arancha Gonzalez, Foreign Minister in Spain, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Wednesday.

“The export restrictions we have been preparing for should never be directed against countries. They should ensure that pharmaceutical companies meet their obligations under the contracts they have with the European Commission,” she added.

This is not the first time the EU has introduced legislation restricting exports of Covid-19 vaccines. The Commission announced in late January that member states could prevent shots from leaving the block if pharmaceutical companies fail to meet deliveries and if the vaccines get to countries not classified as endangered by the EU.

However, this legislation expires at the end of March and the Commission believes it needs to be tightened for a further six weeks.

The latest proposal will be discussed by the 27 heads of state at an EU summit on Thursday.

Earlier this week, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin warned of stricter vaccine export policies, saying it could undermine supplies of raw materials for vaccine manufacturing in the EU. “I’m very much against it. I think it would be a very bearish step,” Martin told RTE Radio.

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Katherine Clark