Ursula von der Leyen has reassured EU leaders she will ban coronavirus vaccines from leaving the EU if suppliers such as AstraZeneca fail to deliver again, as she faced questions over her handling of shortages.
The European commission president’s pledge at a virtual summit came as leaders issued a statement promising to “accelerate the provision of vaccines”, with just 8% of the population having received a jab compared with 27% in the UK.
“If companies don’t fulfil their contractual obligations, yet do export, the commission may decide to make a move under the export regime,” Von der Leyen told the heads of state and government during the private meeting, according to a senior diplomatic source.
Last month the commission rushed through an emergency authorisation scheme to allow the EU member states to block exports.
Speaking at the post-summit press conference, Von der Leyen said: “We want to see who is exporting where and I was very clear from the very start that is not directed against any kind of country but is focused on the question: does the company that is exporting a vaccine produced in Europe honour the contract in the European Union?
“If we look at the pattern the vast majority of exports is done by BioNTech/Pfizer of 95% approximately. The rest by Moderna. Both of them are honouring their contract so that is fine with us. We are in discussions with AstraZeneca where there is room for improvement where fulfilment of the contract is concerned, so here we have a very close eye on what is going on.”
The comments on Thursday evening followed a defence by AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, of his company’s record to a joint committee of the European parliament where he was grilled over a heavy shortfall in the 120m expected deliveries this quarter.
He told MEPs, who had accused him of failing the EU while delivering to Britain, that the UK government had heavily funded the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, for which the government had a 100m order.
Soriot said the “overwhelming” majority of doses made in its Belgian and Netherlands production facilities “remained in the EU” despite the suspicion within the commission that doses made for member states had leaked over to the UK.
“I am disappointed that lower than expected output in our dedicated European supply chain has affected our ability to deliver, but I want to reassure that we are ramping up production and doing everything we can to deliver 40m doses in the first quarter of 2021 enabling vaccination of 10% of the EU population,” Soriot said.
“The supply chain serving the UK is geared to supply 65 million people who live in the UK. The European community has 450 million people I believe. Even if we took the entire supply of the UK it would not make a huge difference to the European community.”
Speaking to the same parliamentary committee, Franz-Werner Haas, the chief executive of the German pharmaceutical company CureVac, with whom the commission has a contract for 225m doses of its as yet unapproved vaccine, highlighted the unintended consequences of the commission’s policy that forces companies to seek authorisation for vaccine exports.
“This has been hitting us somehow because we couldn’t get clinical trial material to Latin America,” Haas told MEPs. “We did then get immediate support from the commission as well as the German authorities. [But] for rather a small company, 600 people, certainly this adds an extra layer … We lost a week to ship the material which was necessary and is necessary to run the clinical trial.”
Following the leaders’ summit, a statement was issued emphasising the determination to speed up the roll out of vaccines amid the heavy criticism. “We need…