LONDON — The European Union threatened to restrict the export of Covid-19 vaccines from the bloc amid growing anger at the slow rollout of immunizations across the 27-country bloc.
“E.U. member states are united: Vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold,” health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said after two tense negotiating sessions with representatives of vaccine maker AstraZeneca, in which the commissioner said “insufficient explanations” were provided.
It is unclear what exactly E.U. officials can and will do to restrict the export of the vaccine.
AstraZeneca took E.U. officials by surprise last week when it announced its initial delivery volumes of the Covid-19 vaccine would be lower than originally anticipated because of manufacturing issues in Europe. The company did not say how much lower the volumes will be.
This came just a week after Pfizer-BioNTech announced there will be a temporary reduction in its vaccine deliveries to the bloc, also without stipulating the size of the reduction, but reassuring it will resume its delivery schedule to the E.U. this week.
Despite wielding significant economic and political power, the bloc with a combined population of 450 million people, had fallen behind other parts of the world in Covid-19 vaccinations.
Israel, United Arab Emirates and the U.K. are far ahead of the bloc’s nations, according to Oxford University’s global vaccination tracker website.
Britain, which has recently left the E.U., has so far administered more than 10 doses per 100 of its residents while the top performing E.U. nation, Denmark, stands at 3.6 doses. Meanwhile, E.U. bulwarks, Germany and France, are at 2 and 1.6 doses respectively.
So the delays are a significant blow to the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of its entire adult population by late summer.
The E.U. also kicked off its vaccination efforts weeks after United Kingdom and the United States amid tighter regulatory controls.
Kyriakides said the E.U. intends to “take any action required to protect its citizens and its rights.”
“In the future, all companies producing vaccines against Covid-19 in the E.U. will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries,” without going into detail of how future restrictions would work.
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Other European Union officials did not respond to questions about whether they would go so far as to halt future exports, or provide further detail about the exact measures they would be willing to take.
On Tuesday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn also called for export restrictions on coronavirus vaccines in an interview to German broadcaster ZDF.
Vaccines that leave the E.U. will need a permit, “so that we at least know what is manufactured in Europe, what leaves Europe — and when it leaves Europe, whether there will be fair distribution,” he said. He did not say how exactly the permit would work.
Both AstraZeneca and Pfizer have vaccine manufacturing facilities in Europe.
“We understand the E.U. proposed notification process is aimed at increasing transparency and does not intend to restrict global supply to patients,” a spokesman for Pfizer told NBC News in an email statement that also noted that the vaccine’s supplies comes from Kalamazoo, Michigan. “But it is critical that governments do not impose export restrictions or other trade barriers that risk creating uncertainty and disrupting supply of vaccine to patients around the world.”
AstraZeneca did not respond to requests for comment.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine has not been approved yet in the E.U., but is expected to get a green light from the bloc’s medical regulator later this week. The E.U. has committed to buying 300 million doses with option on 100 million extra shots.
The E.U. strategically negotiated vaccine purchases in bulk for all of its member states to rollout vaccinations throughout the bloc simultaneously to prevent internal competition and logistical challenges.
The E.U.’s move to restrict vaccine exports has already drawn criticism from officials in the U.K., which has procured its own supply of vaccines, becoming the first nation to roll out Pfizer vaccine in December.
“It seems like a rather childish and spiteful way to behave,” David Jones, a Brexit-supporting former minister, told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, adding that it looks “awfully like blackmail.”
AstraZeneca and E.U. officials are expected to resume their discussions on Wednesday.
Vivi Vitalone and Andy Eckardt contributed.