EU, U.K. Tensions Increase Over Cuts To COVID-19 Vaccine Supplies
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Europe is facing both a surge in coronavirus infections and a slow, shaky vaccination rollout, so the European Union is giving itself emergency powers to curb exports of COVID-19 vaccines produced within the bloc. The move is likely to increase tensions between the EU and its former member, the United Kingdom. We've got NPR's Eleanor Beardsley with us on the line from Paris. Good morning, Eleanor.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What's behind this move by the EU?
BEARDSLEY: Well, the EU wants to prevent what it sees as an unfair, one-way flow of vaccines out of the bloc. The EU wants to limit the kind of delivery shortfalls that it's had so far this year that have compounded its late start in vaccinating and its slow pace. So this mechanism would allow the EU to withhold shipments of vaccines to vaccine-producing countries if they have higher inoculation rates and they're not exporting to the EU from their factories.
MARTIN: EU regulators, as I understand it, have criticized AstraZeneca in particular. Why?
BEARDSLEY: Well, AstraZeneca - you know, no country or vaccine in particular is targeted in these new powers. But, you know, it's going to be on a case-by-case basis. But AstraZeneca promised 120 million vaccines to Europe in the first quarter, and they'll only deliver about 30 million. And Brussels is exasperated that AstraZeneca has been consistently delivering on its contract with Britain while letting the EU suffer these shortages. And Britain, as we know, is vaccinating at a pretty good pace. So here is EU parliamentarian Manfred Weber talking about what's at stake in a debate on this in the EU Parliament.
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MANFRED WEBER: We sent 9 million vaccines to the U.K. and they delivered zero. We sent more vaccines in the last three months to the U.K. than we have given to Spain, dear colleagues. Priority for the next month must be the Europeans. We cannot endanger lives and health of our fellow citizens anymore.
BEARDSLEY: Now, Britain signed a contract with AstraZeneca for its doses well ahead of the EU. And CEO of AstraZeneca, who's actually a Frenchman, has said that Britain's contract will be respected. But the EU actually disputes that and says it signed before Britain.
MARTIN: So, Eleanor, how did the EU end up being so dependent on just one company in the first place? I mean, surely there was always a chance of some kind of production problems.
BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, the EU has actually approved four vaccines, but AstraZeneca, with it not having to be kept in, you know, a deep freeze, was considered the vaccine of the masses. But actually, Moderna and Pfizer have also had problems meeting supply for the first quarter. Their vaccines could be, you know, affected, too. Pfizer produces millions of doses of its BioNTech vaccine in Germany and Belgium, although most of those are destined for the EU market. The EU just did not - you know, getting 450 vaccines, it did not scale up. It's being criticized for not being ready. But now the EU is trying to ramp it all up. And, you know, there are going to be stadiums open for mass vaccinations in France in the coming week. And the EU just doesn't want, you know, what happened in the first quarter to happen in the second quarter, these huge shortages.
MARTIN: So what's the reaction from Britain?
BEARDSLEY: Well, earlier this week, before this was approved, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called moves like this vaccine blockades. It's going to heighten tensions between Brussels and London, who have recently divorced, as you know, in Brexit. And this morning, there are intense discussions going on between the EU and the U.K. ahead of a European Council summit today. But, you know, 20,000 Europeans are dying a week. Germany, France and Italy are in lockdowns. Europe needs to start vaccinating and needs those vaccines.
MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting from Paris. Thank you.
BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Rachel.
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