The British government said Saturday that it does not expect any disruptions to its orders for coronavirus vaccines after the European Union emphasized it would not trigger an emergency provision of the Brexit deal as part of its strategy to monitor export of doses produced in the EU.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said the government expects the vaccines to be supplied as planned after the EU addressed the “mistake” in its proposal to tighten export rules for COVID-19 vaccines produced in the 27 member nations.
The U.K. government complained late Friday that the bloc had invoked an emergency clause in its divorce deal with Britain to introduce controls on exports from EU member Ireland into Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
After a call between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU’s executive commission, the EU said it was not invoking the article of the Brexit agreement allowing either side to override parts of the deal.
Gove said Johnson was “very clear” in the call to stress that the U.K. has contractual arrangements with pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
“President von der Leyen was clear that she understood exactly the U.K. government’s position, so we expect that those contracts will be honored, we expect that vaccines will continue to be supplied,” he added.
While the U.K. has made progress in its campaign to vaccinate the population against the coronavirus, the EU has faced complaints and criticism for its slow start.
Concerns over the pace of the rollout across the EU’s 27 member nations grew over the last week after British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said it could not supply EU members with as many doses as originally anticipated because of production capacity limits.
AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot has said that vaccine delivery figures in the contract with the EU were targets, not firm commitments, and the company was unable to meet them because plants in Europe had lower than expected yields from the biological process used to produce the vaccine.
However, the European Commission suspected that doses meant for Europe might have been diverted from an AstraZeneca plant on the continent to the U.K., where two other company sites are located. The EU also wants doses at two sites in Britain to be made available to European citizens.
That was the backdrop to the EU’s decision to trigger the Northern Ireland provision on Friday, when EU regulators authorized the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the EU. As part of the Brexit agreement, goods are supposed to flow freely between the EU and Northern Ireland under special arrangements for the U.K. region designed to protect the peace process on the island of Ireland.
Though it reversed course on that, the EU is pushing ahead with a plan to oversee vaccines manufactured in its member states, a move that could hinder the U.K.’s access to supplies, particularly to the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine made in Belgium.
Germany’s health minister called Saturday for the European Union to get its “fair share” of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
In an interview with German weekly newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Health Minister Jens Spahn said he wanted transparency from the drugmaker.
“It’s not about Europe first, but about Europe’s fair share,” Spahn was quoted as saying.
According to the newspaper, Spahn said he wanted to be sure that all of AstraZeneca’s customers were “affected in the same way” by the production problems the company blamed for the reduction in shipments over the coming months.
The European Union expressed anger this week at AstraZeneca’s announcement that it would initially only supply 31 million doses of vaccine to the 27-nation bloc, instead of the 80 million doses it had hoped to deliver. The EU said it provided 336 million ($408 million) to help finance the production of AstraZeneca’s vaccine at four factories months before it was approved by medical regulators.
The row reached a new pitch late Friday when the EU introduced a “vaccine export transparency mechanism″ to put tighter rules on exports of COVID-19 vaccines.
The EU insists the mechanism is not an export ban and said it would be in place at least until the end of March to ensure member nations get the shots they bought from producers. The World Health Organization has criticized the new EU export rules as “not helpful.”