Britain-EU row over coronavirus vaccine likely to continue amid supply shortages
London (UK), April 1: Tensions remain unabated between Britain and the European Union (EU) as a spat over COVID-19 vaccines is likely to go on due to continued shortage of supplies.
WAR OF WORDS
The European Commission recently unveiled a revised version of its export transparency mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines, highlighting reciprocity and proportionality for assessing whether these vaccines can be exported to non-EU countries.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, while accusing the British-based AstraZeneca of failing to honor its EU contract, has warned that the bloc might restrict vaccine exports to countries which have higher vaccination rates, clearly referring to Britain.
In a more dramatic development, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a recent interview with France Info television that Europe would not let itself be subjected to "a kind of blackmail" by Britain over supplies of COVID-19 vaccines.
Meanwhile, the British government has strongly opposed any blockade of vaccine exports from the EU.
"I don't think that blockades, of either vaccines or medicines or ingredients for vaccines, are sensible and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very big," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told lawmakers recently, implying that future investments might be stalled in "countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed."
Asked directly if he would rule out taking retaliatory action should a blockade be imposed, Johnson said: "Our priority is to continue the vaccine rollout to vaccinate the British people. We'll do everything necessary that we can to ensure that happens."
Only 12.3 percent of all adults in the EU have received the first dose of COVID vaccine, according to the latest figures published by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Meanwhile, in Britain, more than half of all adults have received the first dose. The government insisted the country is "on course" to meet its target of offering a first dose to the top nine priority groups, including the over-50s, by April 15 and all adults by the end of July.
Sarah Schiffling, an expert on supply chain management at Liverpool John Moores University, told Xinhua that both sides could be harmed if a block of vaccine supply is implemented.
"I don't think it is very helpful to have these sort of terms of a vaccine war, blackmail, selfishness ... we have to acknowledge that this has been a global issue," said Schiffling.
"It's not really in anybody's interest to make this a battle of retaliation. You have these very complex international supply chains and there's just no way to disentangle those and to completely cut each other off. That will harm both parties very significantly," she said.
POST BREXIT TIES
The battle of the vaccine came just months after Britain officially abandoned its status as an EU member after the Brexit transition period ended at the end of last year.
"This comes at a very crucial point in time after the UK has left the EU and now we've got disagreements about exports between the UK and the EU," Schiffling noted.
"What we have to stress is the vaccine procurement mechanism the UK has used was in principle open to all EU members as well. So it's not like the UK had a great opportunity because of Brexit to do their own vaccine procurement. That was open to EU member states just the same."
Britain, she added, went down a route of securing its own procurement of vaccines and was now seeing a much quicker vaccination program.
"The EU was quite concerned with who is going to be a liability if something goes wrong, whereas in the UK there was a much higher risk strategy with committing vast amounts of money early on in the development of vaccine, and this route has paid off. So this is why we've got in the UK right now much higher availability of vaccines," she said.
However, the expert noted that the COVID-19 vaccine is also a highly political issue.
"In the end every country has an interest in vaccinating its citizens ... For the EU, the UK is now a 'third country,' it's a country outside the bloc. So it is competitor for these very important items," she said.
GLOBAL PUBLIC GOOD
Despite initial progress in its vaccine roll-out, Britain is now facing major uncertainties in its vaccination program.
The National Health Service (NHS) England has warned that Britain is going to face a "significant reduction" in vaccine supplies from this week onwards due to a need to retest 1.7 million vaccine doses as well as delays to doses arriving from India.
Meanwhile, a potential ban of vaccine exports from the EU could make the situation in Britain worse. Johnson has warned the effects of a third wave of coronavirus from Europe will "wash up on our shores."
John Vella, visiting lecturer on economics at the University of Malta, told Xinhua that the global pandemic requires countries to work together to help solve it.
"Everyone should get their heads together to make sure that more and more people get the vaccine to prevent hospitalization as a result of the coronavirus. This is a common health threat so cooperation at various levels -- primarily, political and medical -- is of utmost importance," Vella said.
In a recent joint statement, the British government and the European Commission pledged to work together and "create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens."
"In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcoming this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges," said the statement.
European Council President Charles Michel has also said that immunization is a global public good.
"So we need to be able to develop, manufacture and deploy vaccines as quickly as possible," to ensure universal and equitable access to vaccines, medicines and tests, he said Tuesday during a joint press conference with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
According to Schiffling, many countries still do not have access to sufficient vaccines, so the real issue was ramping up production on a global scale. Otherwise, the conflicts over vaccine supply, not only within the European borders but beyond, will continue.
"For many countries ... they may not have access to vaccine for the rest of this year, maybe even longer than that," Schiffling said.
"Let's calm this down, let's not be so heated about this because in the end we are in this together," she added.