London/Brussels — The EU and Britain are pursuing talks to break their deadlock over AstraZeneca’s coronavirus shots.
The goal is to avoid an escalation that could result in exports to the UK blocked from AstraZeneca’s plant in the Netherlands. The EU believes that the drugmaker had double-booked its production and that both Brussels and London have valid claims, so European officials have floated the possibility of sharing the facility’s output with Britain, according to diplomats familiar with the matter.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson both struck a conciliatory tone in public and Britain had dispatched a former ambassador as a special representative to negotiate with the European Commission. The Financial Times reported earlier that Tim Barrow, former envoy to the EU, will lead the talks.
Johnson, who has spoken to European counterparts in recent days, said avoiding blockades of vaccine supplies is vital because immunisation programmes require countries to work together.
“I’m reassured by talking to EU partners over the last few months that they don’t want to see blockades,” Johnson said on Monday. “That’s very, very important.”
Merkel, who discussed the vaccine situation in a call with Johnson on Sunday, said “we must be very careful with general export bans at this stage”.
“Instead we will have to look very closely at supply chains,” Merkel said at a news conference on Tuesday morning after agreeing with regional leaders to impose a radical lockdown on Germany over Easter.
“Right now the EU is the area from which most exports are coming,” she added. “We will decide this in a responsible way and we will also seek to speak with the British government.”
AstraZeneca’s Leiden-based plant, which is run by the subcontractor Halix, has yet to receive regulatory approval. It is expected to later this month or in early April.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine — one of four approved in the EU — has been at the centre of the EU’s vaccination problems since production issues emerged in January. Most recently, its shot was temporarily suspended in much of Europe over blood-clot fears. It is now expected to deliver 30-million doses to the EU by the end of this month, less than half of its initial commitment.
When they meet this week, EU leaders will say that “accelerating the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines remains essential to overcome the crisis” and that efforts “must be further intensified,” according to a draft summit statement. Leaders will also underline the importance of transparency in the export of vaccines.
At a meeting of ambassadors last week, countries including Italy and France said they were open to exploring the export ban while others, such as Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands, urged caution and warned about the impact on European companies, according to a diplomatic note.
A Dutch government official said that vaccines were the result of integrated global supply chains and it was in principle vital to keep those chains intact.
While the Dutch official said it was crucial to spread the pain of the Astra delay evenly, the Netherlands would support a commission decision, the official said.
The UK is the largest recipient of shots made in the EU, receiving 10-million of the 42-million doses exported by the bloc as of last week. Most of the vaccines sent to the UK so far have been Pfizer-BioNTech. EU ambassadors were told last week that no vaccines have been imported from the UK, underlining their concerns about reciprocity.
AstraZeneca has said it is sticking by all its contractual commitments.
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