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Vaccine row heats up as EU doubles down on threat to ban AstraZeneca exports to UK

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·3 min read
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BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 17: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders (not seen) and European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton (not seen) hold a joint press conference regarding Covid-19 vaccination, in Brussels, Belgium on March 17, 2021. (Photo by Thierry Monasse / Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Photo: Thierry Monasse / Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The European Union has upped the ante in the bloc's vaccine row with drugmaker Swedish-British drugmaker AstraZeneca (AZN.L) as the continent's inoculation programme falls behind.

European Commission (EC) president Ursula von der Leyen renewed threats over the weekend and declared a jab warfare on the UK, threatening it would block exports of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from reaching Britain.

Von der Leyen said the continent has the power to ban exports if the pharma firm didn't meet its supply obligations to the EU. "That is the message to AstraZeneca. You fulfil your contract with Europe before you start delivering to other countries," she told German newspapers.

The news comes after thirteen countries, including France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands temporarily banned the use of the AstraZeneca jab over worries it caused blood clots but many have resumed their programmes after the European Medicines Agency declared it safe for use on Friday.

It is not the first time, the EC president has threatened the UK amid the vaccine row. Previously, von der Leyen said she would halt the export of coronavirus vaccines into Britain unless Boris Johnson surrendered British-made AstraZeneca jabs to the EU.

Britain reached a milestone, announcing on Saturday that half of the UK adult population have now received a first dose of a COVID vaccine.

According to the latest government figures, more than 26 million people in the UK have had their first dose of the vaccine. However the actual current total is still to be updated and is expected to be published later.

In Europe, only 12% of adults in France, Germany and Italy have had vaccines as the EU countries grapple with a third wave COVID-19.

The reality of a third wave is more and more likely for countries such as France, the Netherlands and Italy, triggering fresh restrictions in several EU countries, with France going into its third lockdown across 16 regions, including Paris.

READ MORE: UK summer holidays 'unlikely' amid vaccine chaos and variant fears

Defence secretary Ben Wallace said on Sunday that the "grown-up thing" would be for the EC and some of the EU leaders to not "indulge in rhetoric but to recognise the obligations that we all have."

"We will all hold each other to our contracts. Making a vaccine is like baking a cake. We all have different ingredients and the European Commission will know that," he added.

The opposition Labour Party also backed the government in the row over vaccines, calling on Brussels to "calm" its rhetoric over a potential exports ban. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, called von der Leyen's comments "deeply unhelpful."

On Friday, US drugmaker Pfizer (PFE) also waded into the row, warning the EU not to block vaccines to the UK, as it relies “heavily” on vital ingredients from Yorkshire, the Telegraph reported.

A Pfizer spokesman said: “We have been clear with all stakeholders that the free movement of goods and supply across borders is absolutely critical to Pfizer and the patients we serve.

“We are working closely with governments around the world, including the UK Government and the European Commission, to ensure the supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in accordance with the agreed schedules.”

Watch: Raab blasts EU ‘brinkmanship’ over threat to halt coronavirus vaccine exports