Disputes due to shortage of delivery, while export controls has been conducted on the vaccine made in the bloc.
The so-called transparency mechanism gives EU countries powers to deny authorization for vaccine exports if the company making them hasn’t honored existing contracts with the EU.
“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 controls will affect some 100 countries worldwide – including the UK, the US, Canada and Australia – but many others, including poorer nations, are exempt.
The EU insists its controls are a temporary scheme, not an export ban. But the World Health Organization is among those criticising the move, saying it could have a knock-on effect around the world.
Why is this happening now?
The news comes with the EU in a very public dispute with drug-maker AstraZeneca over supplies, and under growing pressure over the slow pace of vaccine distribution.
Earlier on Friday the Commission made public a confidential contract with AstraZeneca, the UK-Swedish company behind the Oxford vaccine, to bolster its argument that the firm has been failing to fulfil its promises to deliver to the bloc.
Under the new rule, vaccine firms will have to seek permission before supplying doses beyond the EU. Its 27 member states will be able to vet those export applications.
Vaccines produced by Pfizer in Belgium are currently being exported to the UK, and the EU insists that some of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in England is destined under contract for EU citizens.
The EU is also in a supply dispute with Pfizer, which is set to fall short of the contracted vaccine volume for the EU by the end of March. Pfizer says the reason for that is the urgent expansion of its facility in Puurs, Belgium.
AstraZeneca’s shortfall to the EU is expected to be about 60% in the first quarter of 2021.
As the export controls were announced, the EU medicines regulator, the EMA, gave authorisation for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be used in over-18s.
Who is exempt from the export controls?
The EU is allowing some 92 exemptions from the export control regime, including: vaccine donations to Covax, the global scheme to help poorer countries; and exports to Switzerland, countries in the western Balkans, Norway and North Africa. Other Mediterranean countries such as Lebanon and Israel are also exempt.
Explaining the export measures, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a news conference they would ensure that all EU citizens had access to vaccines, and that all parties played by the rules.
“This approach is built on trust, transparency and responsibility,” she said.
“Commitments need to be kept, and agreements are binding. Advance purchase agreements need to be respected.
“Today, we have developed a system which will allow us to know whether vaccines are being exported from the EU. This increased transparency will also come with a responsibility for the EU to authorise, with our member states, these vaccine exports.”
Pressure grows as nations grow impatient
The BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler says some EU governments are beginning to show impatience with Brussels, which had hoped its vaccination purchasing scheme would be a beacon of European solidarity and strength.
The Commission’s laboured negotiating process, the tardy approval of vaccines by the EU’s medical regulator and delays now in vaccine deliveries have left EU citizens demanding answers and action, our correspondent says.
Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier and Germany’s possible future chancellor, told ZDF television on Friday that it was his impression that the commission “ordered too late, and only bet on a few companies, they agreed on a price in a typically bureaucratic EU procedure and completely underestimated the fundamental importance of the situation.”
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter that he “had hoped not to see [the European Union] leading the world down the destructive path of vaccine nationalism”.
“Our continent’s entire history of success has been one of open global value chains,” he added.
Earlier this week the EU indicated this proposal was coming down the track. It would be a “notification system” officials said. Nothing more than a way of showing transparency.
That has now turned into an export control policy, partly because of Germany’s insistence that EU governments should be the ones to decide whether EU-based companies can export vaccines elsewhere.
EU officials tell me that it’s also been partly triggered by the deep suspicion of the “vague justification” given by AstraZeneca this week, when their chief executive insisted that the production problem was down to “lower productivity” at its Belgian plant.
This new system of export control could well affect British vaccine deliveries.
Pfizer currently dispatches doses from the Puurs site here to the UK. In future, Pfizer would have to fill in an export form and wait up to 48 hours for their export request to be accepted or rejected by the Belgian government. That decision would be based on whether the company could prove that taking that batch of vaccine to the UK would not affect the existing EU agreement.