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Within the latest spat between Brussels and AstraZeneca, and by extension Boris Johnson’s government, lies the potential for a new period of vaccine collaboration between Britain and the EU, however unlikely that might look at the moment.
The issue highlighted by EU officials in recent days is that AstraZeneca has a plant in the Netherlands’ Leiden Bio Science Park, producing vaccines.
The plant, run by the subcontractor Halix, has not exported any jabs to the EU as yet as the facility is yet to be given approval by the European Medicines Agency.
Neither has it exported a significant number of completed doses to the UK. No exports have been made to the UK in the last two months and if any were sent before that they were only samples or doses for use in clinical trials. AstraZeneca’s production for the UK market is largely covered by production in Oxford and Staffordshire, with input also expected from a manufacturing partner in India in the event of yields in Britain being lower than expected.
But the Dutch plant is building up something of a stockpile now – and both the EU and the UK want them. More to the point the both believe they have a claim to them.
The UK’s early financing of Oxford University’s efforts, and its tie-up with the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca, gave the government the opportunity to stipulate that UK requirements should be prioritised by the company if a successful vaccine emerged.
But a lower-than-expected yield in the UK plants in recent weeks, and a stalling of production at the Serum Institute of India Ltd, has left the British government wanting. It expects doses made in the Netherlands to come its way, a scenario that Brussels is understandably not at all happy with given the shortfalls it has suffered on expected AstraZeneca’s deliveries and the company’s refusal to divert doses in the UK to the EU.
Under the EU’s export authorisation mechanism, brought into force at the end of January, the European commission has the power to block a request by a company to send doses out of the bloc.
The Dutch government is not one to stand in the way of exports but it is ultimately up to Brussels. While no export request has been made as yet, EU officials have suggested that there is little chance of such an export being granted by the commission, especially given that the EMA is expected to give the Dutch plant its approval to make doses for the EU within days.
The optics of doses leaving the EU for Britain when its own vaccination programme is only slowly gearing up are not good. This, then, has all the appearances of a zero-sum game.
But the Dutch government is pushing for a little less aggravation and a little more negotiation – and with the UK now in the envious position of having vaccinated half the population, the UK has an opportunity to be a less self-congratulatory and tad more magnanimous.
On Sunday, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, gave more than a hint that initially doses made in the Netherlands and then the UK could be shared, and that joint investment in scaling up production was on the cards.
“We could absolutely work together to continue to maximise production,” he told The Andrew Marr show. “We’re exploring where else we can grow the supply chain, whether at home or abroad.”
The truth is that neither the UK nor the EU are in desperate need of more jabs. The EU is expecting approximately 300m doses in the second quarter of this year, and 55m of those will be from Johnson & Johnson, whose product requires only a single shot to be fully effective.
The real challenge is getting jabs into arms swiftly – and then building production to ensure Europe and the wider world are able to respond to new variants that may not be as susceptible to the current types of vaccine.
On Thursday, EU leaders will discuss the potential to empower the commission with new tools to seize control of distribution and production in EU territory, potentially escalating the row with London. But, wiser Brussels’ heads, suggest there is a better way.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Potential for EU-UK vaccine collaboration despite AstraZeneca row | Vaccines and immunisation