The European Union has confirmed it will control coronavirus vaccine exports, raising fears of a global battle as the World Health Organisation warned it was a “worrying trend”.
The EU said it would introduce export controls on various vaccines produced in the bloc in a bid to secure supply for its citizens amid criticism it’s not vaccinating people fast enough.
“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 WHO has repeatedly warned about the disparity between rich and poor nations when it comes to access to coronavirus vaccines and raised concerns about the EU’s decision.
“The people at the top of the queue are fighting over where they are in the queue — that’s what it looks like, fighting over the cake,” said WHO’s head of emergencies Mike Ryan.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the export measures would be “built on trust, transparency and responsibility”.
“Today, we have developed a system which will allow us to know whether vaccines are being exported from the EU,” she said.
“This increased transparency will also come with a responsibility for the EU to authorise, with our members states, these vaccine exports.”
The move comes amid a row between the EU and AstraZeneca over a shortfall in supplies in which the drugmaker reacted by publishing its COVID-19 vaccine contract.
AstraZeneca and the EU had signed a deal for up to 400 million doses.
The company unexpectedly announced cuts in supplies to the region last week, citing production problems at a Belgian factory, which triggered a furious response from the bloc.
Brussels has demanded doses be sent from British plants to make up for a shortfall, but the UK said it would not allow vaccines intended for Britain to go to the EU.
German MEP Dr Peter Liese warned the UK it would be acting like former US president Donald Trump if it pursued a “UK first” contract for the vaccines.
Separately, EU regulators have authorised AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine for use in adults throughout the European Union.
The European Medicines Agency’s expert committee unanimously recommended on Friday that the vaccine be used in people 18 and over.
The recommendation came despite concerns raised this week that not enough data existed to prove it works in older people, and some countries indicated they may not give it to the elderly.
The agency has recommended the vaccine’s use in older people, despite limited data regarding its efficacy in people over 55, citing the immune responses seen and experience with other vaccines.
“At least some protection is expected,” Bruno Sepodes, of the EMA’s expert committee, said on Friday at a news briefing. He acknowledged that “the exact level of protection cannot be estimated for the time being.”
With trials showing about 60% efficacy, the vaccine appears to offer less protection than ones already authorised, but experts have said any vaccine with a rate of over 50% could help stop outbreaks.
The EU bet heavily on the shot, which is cheaper and easier to handle than some other vaccines, with orders for 300 million doses to be delivered after authorisation and options for another 100 million doses.