The European Union has introduced tighter rules on exports of COVID-19 vaccines that could hit shipments to nations such as the United Kingdom amid a deepening dispute with drug maker AstraZeneca over supplies of potentially lifesaving shots.
The Northern Ireland and UK governments immediately lashed out at the move, saying the bloc invoked an emergency clause in its divorce deal with Britain that could allow it to halt vaccine exports to the small territory.
Goods are supposed to flow freely between the EU and Northern Ireland under special arrangements designed to protect the peace process on the island of Ireland.
Politicians in Northern Ireland condemned the move and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his “grave concerns”, with the UK government asking the EU for explanations “and assurances as to its intentions”.
Earlier, the 27-nation bloc and AstraZeneca made public a heavily redacted version of their vaccine deal that at the heart of a dispute over the delivery schedule.
The contract allows the EU’s member countries to buy 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with an option for a further 100 million doses. It’s one of several contracts the EU’s executive branch has with vaccine makers to secure a total of more than two billion shots.
The EU lashed out at the British-Swedish drug maker this week after the company said it would only supply 31 million doses of vaccine in initial shipments, instead of the 80 million doses it had hoped to deliver.
The European Commission is concerned that doses meant for Europe might have been diverted from an AstraZeneca plant on the continent to the UK, where two other company sites are located. The EU also wants doses at two sites in Britain to be made available to European citizens.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told Germany’s Die Welt this week the UK government helped create the vaccine developed with Oxford University and signed its contract three months before the EU did. Soriot said that under the British contract, vaccines produced at UK sites must go to the UK first.
To head off similar disputes, the commission introduced measures on Friday to tighten the export rules of shots produced in the 27 EU countries.
EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference the “vaccine export transparency mechanism” would be used until the end of March to control shipments to non-EU countries and ensure any exporting company based in the EU first submits its plans to national authorities.
The EU insisted it was not an export ban, although it could be used to block shipments to the UK or other non-EU countries.
Officials said the mechanism would not affect humanitarian deliveries and shipments to countries covered by the COVAX initiative co-led by the World Health Organisation.
The World Health Organisation criticised the new EU export rules as “not helpful”.
As well as the dispute with AstraZeneca, delays or production problems with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have caused a political uproar across the EU.