The EU’s vaccine export controls are only the tip of the iceberg

Article by Lea Schiller

In the last week of March, the European Union once again found itself in a controversy over its vaccine campaign, when the Commission proposed a rule which would give the bloc extensive powers to curb vaccine exports for six weeks. This action received mixed responses inside the EU and criticism from outside of it. But while the critique has valid reasons, the debate around these restrictions is misplaced – because while the EU might be stirring up conflict with other rich, vaccine producing nations, the developing world has largely been left to its own devices. In the following, I will lay out the reasons behind the restrictions, the mechanisms with which they work and the implications they have for the global vaccine trade

What led to the decision to impose export restrictions?

The EU is mainly exporting the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine. The rest of the exports are made up of Moderna and AstraZeneca shots, the latter of which has been the source of many conflicts in the past months. The main problem is that AstraZeneca has failed to meet its contractual obligations with the EU. In the meantime, the EU has been exporting millions of AstraZeneca doses to the UK, with none coming the other way – even though the EU invested thousands of Euros to expand manufacturing capacities in the UK (Herszenhorn & Deutsch, 2021). On top of that, Italian authorities discovered a stockpile of almost 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine (Martuscelli, 2021). It’s still unclear who these doses were meant for – the Commission has stated that there were no exports planned in the near future, and the company denied that the find was a stockpile in the first place (Martuscelli, 2021). In conclusion – weeks of mistrust between the EU and AstraZeneca, on top of a slow vaccination campaign within the EU have led up to the risky strategy of imposing vaccine export controls.

How do the export restrictions work?

The new rule, which went into force on the last day of March, allows export bans to countries on two conditions. One targets countries that restrict exports of vaccines or raw materials needed for vaccine manufacturing to the EU. The second applies to countries which have a higher vaccination rate than the EU or are experiencing a less severe COVID-19 outbreak. The first part of the regulation is clearly aimed towards the United Kingdom, which practically put an export ban in place when it signed a deal with AstraZeneca that states the company is to supply the United Kingdom first, before it is allowed to ship vaccines to other buyers (Herszenhorn & von der Burchard, 2021). The EU’s new export restrictions will affect millions of doses that are destined for the UK, which could slow down Britain’s fast-paced vaccination campaign.

Why vaccine export restrictions are controversial

Responding to the Commission’s proposal, Britain appealed to collaborative values and stressed that the fight against the pandemic is an international effort (Stevis-Gridneff, 2021). But such statements seem empty when some of the richest nations have been refusing to supply other countries with vaccines since the beginning of the vaccination campaign. The EU’s push for export controls may be ill-advised because it risks retaliation by other countries, specifically those who export the raw materials needed to manufacture the vaccines (Cendrowicz, 2021) – but this is only part of the problem. For one, other developed nations such as US and the UK have had practical export bans in force since the beginning of their vaccination campaign. And secondly, the UK, the US and the EU all opposed a proposal by developing countries to waiver the intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, which could have boosted the vaccine production in poorer nations (Reuters, 2021).

The bigger picture

The provisions that have long been in place that allow richer nations to hoard vaccines and the profit they generate are keeping life-saving vaccinations from millions of people in need. So, while it is debatable whether the export restrictions will leave the EU better off in the long run, they are a mere fraction of a regime that is keeping the vaccine supply catered towards the richer part of the world. The West is not only creating divisions between themselves and the developing world, but also actively endangering the fight against the pandemic by allowing COVID-19 to spread unhindered in these regions. Until all countries have reached herd immunity, new mutations are free to emerge – and with them comes the threat of variants that vaccines cannot protect us from.


References

Cendrowicz, L. (2021, March 25). An EU ban on vaccine exports would make its wretched rollout take longer still. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/25/an-eu-ban-on-vaccine-exports-would-make-its-wretched-rollout-take-longer-still

Deutsch, J., Eder, F., & Herszenhorn, D.M. (2021, January 26). Enraged at AstraZeneca over shortfall, EU calls for vaccine export controls. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/enraged-at-astrazeneca-over-shortfall-eu-calls-for-vaccine-export-controls/

Herszenhorn, D.M. & von der Burchard, H. (2021, March 24). EU moves toward six-week vaccine export cut. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/commission-proposes-six-week-vaccine-export-ban-amid-fears-of-trade-war/

Martuscelli, C. (2021, March 24). Italian authorities discover 29M Oxford/AstraZeneca doses: La Stampa. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-authorities-discover-29m-oxford-astrazeneca-vaccine-doses-la-stampa/

Reuters (2021, March 10). Rich, developing nations wrangle over COVID vaccine patents. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-wto-idUSKBN2B21V9

Stevis-Gridneff, M. (2021, March 28). E.U. will curb covid vaccine exports for 6 weeks. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/23/world/europe/eu-curbs-vaccine-exports.html