LONDON — The European Union is threatening to restrict the export of Covid-19 vaccines made in the bloc amid growing anger at the slow rollout of immunizations.
“E.U. member states are united: Vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said late Monday after two tense negotiating sessions with representatives of the vaccine maker AstraZeneca, in which the commissioner said "insufficient explanations" were provided.
AstraZeneca took E.U. officials by surprise last week when it announced its initial delivery volumes of the Covid-19 vaccine, developed in collaboration with U.K.'s Oxford University, 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.
Both AstraZeneca and Pfizer have vaccine manufacturing facilities in Europe.
Despite wielding significant economic and political power, the bloc, with a combined population of 450 million people, has fallen behind other parts of the world in Covid-19 vaccinations.
Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the U.K. are far ahead of E.U. 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 per 100 residents. Germany and France are at 2 and 1.6 doses respectively.
So the delays are a significant blow to the union's goal of vaccinating 70 percent of its entire adult population by late summer.
The E.U. also kicked off its vaccination efforts weeks after the U.K. 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 E.U. 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 with the 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.
"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 that also noted that the U.S. vaccine supply 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 has multiple orders from countries outside the E.U., with the biggest advance purchase coming from the U.S. at 500 million, but Canada, Japan, the African Union, Brazil, Australia and others also have deals for millions of doses, according to data compiled by Duke University. Similarly, Pfizer has multiple deals with non-E.U. countries, including 200 million for the U.S. and 100 million for China.
AstraZeneca's vaccine has not been approved yet in the E.U., but is expected to get a greenlight from the bloc’s medical regulator this week. The E.U. has committed to buying 300 million doses with option on 100 million more.
The E.U. strategically negotiated vaccine purchases in bulk for all of its member states to roll out 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.