Health officials ‘concerned’ about new EU controls on Covid-19 vaccine exports

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Health officials are worried new European Union controls on Covid-19 vaccine exports could mean there are not as many doses available in New Zealand.

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The rules apply to vaccines made inside the EU – which include the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.

The European Union has introduced controls on Covid-19 vaccines bound for countries outside the EU, including New Zealand and Australia.

The Ministry of Health admits it is concerned about the new rules and it is urgently working to understand whether they will slow down New Zealand’s pandemic response.

But in a statement, it says it expects vaccine manufacturers to stick to timeframes in purchase agreements.

It says the government has pre-ordered four different vaccines, so New Zealanders will still have access to a vaccine if one agreement fails.

WHO criticises EU over vaccine export controls

The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the EU’s announcement of export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc, saying such measures risked prolonging the pandemic.

The EU introduced the measure amid a row with vaccine manufacturers over delivery shortfalls.

But WHO vice-head Mariangela Simao said it was a “very worrying trend”.

Earlier WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “vaccine nationalism” could lead to a “protracted recovery”.

Speaking at the Davos Agenda – a virtual version of the global summit – he said vaccine hoarding would “keep the pandemic burning and… slow global economic recovery”, in addition to being a “catastrophic moral failure” that could further widen global inequality.

What is the EU doing?

The European Union is introducing export controls on coronavirus vaccines made in the bloc, amid a row about delivery shortfalls.

The so-called transparency mechanism gives EU countries powers to deny authorisation for vaccine exports if the company making them has not honoured existing contracts with the EU.

“The protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no choice but to act,” the European Commission said.

The controls will affect some 100 countries worldwide – including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – but many others, including poorer nations, are exempt.

However, the EU has been forced to backtrack on plans to impose restrictions on the export of vaccines across the border on the island of Ireland after outcry from Dublin and London.

The EU insists its controls are a temporary scheme, not an export ban.

Why is this happening now?

The news comes with the EU in a very public dispute with drug-maker AstraZeneca over supplies, and under growing pressure over the slow pace of vaccine distribution.

Earlier on Friday the Commission made public a confidential contract with AstraZeneca, the UK-Swedish company behind the Oxford vaccine, to bolster its argument that the firm has been failing to fulfil its promises to deliver to the bloc.

The contract stipulates that the pharmaceutical company would commit its “best reasonable efforts” to manufacture and distribute doses.

AstraZeneca has blamed the delays on production glitches at plants in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the late signing of contracts.

Under the EU’s new rule, vaccine firms will have to seek permission before supplying doses beyond the EU. Its 27 member states will be able to vet those export applications.

Vaccines produced by Pfizer in Belgium are currently being exported to the UK, and the EU insists that some of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in England is destined under contract for EU citizens.

The EU is also in a supply dispute with Pfizer, which is set to fall short of the contracted vaccine volume for the EU by the end of March. Pfizer says the reason for that is the urgent expansion of its facility in Puurs, Belgium.

Who is exempt from the export controls?

The EU is allowing some 92 exemptions from the export control regime, including: vaccine donations to Covax, the global scheme to help poorer countries; and exports to Switzerland, countries in the western Balkans, Norway and North Africa. Other Mediterranean countries such as Lebanon and Israel are also exempt.

But on Saturday WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC vaccines should be given to all vulnerable groups and health workers across the globe before each country starts giving the jabs out more widely.

This would mean wealthy nations, such as the UK, halting immunisations at home once priority groups had been vaccinated and instead helping with vaccinations elsewhere.

“We’re asking all countries in those circumstances to do that – hang on, wait for those other groups. Rather than rushing to vaccinate one country, we need to be doing the lot and we need to be doing it together,” she said.

So far 95 percent of all vaccinations had taken place in just 10 countries, Harris said, while only two low and middle income countries had even begun immunisation programmes.

Pressure grows as nations grow impatient

The BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler says some EU governments are beginning to show impatience with Brussels, which had hoped its vaccination purchasing scheme would be a beacon of European solidarity and strength.

The Commission’s laboured negotiating process, the tardy approval of vaccines by the EU’s medical regulator and delays now in vaccine deliveries have left EU citizens demanding answers and action, Adler says.

Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier and Germany’s possible future chancellor, told ZDF television on Friday that it was his impression that the commission “ordered too late, and only bet on a few companies, they agreed on a price in a typically bureaucratic EU procedure and completely underestimated the fundamental importance of the situation.”

On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron questioned the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, describing it as “quasi-ineffective” for the over-65s.

The claim was rejected by Sir John Bell, an Oxford University professor who was part of the team behind the vaccine.

“I suspect this is a bit of demand management from Mr Macron,” Sir John told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. Asked if he thought Mr Macron was trying to reduce demand for the jab, he added: “Well, if he didn’t have any vaccine the best thing you could do is reduce demand.”

– BBC / RNZ

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