Why the EU should urgently rethink its COVID-19 vaccine export controls
Jonathan Arnott

Editor's note: Jonathan Arnott is a former member of the European Parliament. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Vaccines are not easy to produce, at least in large quantities. The problem is one of scale. Producing a few cells in a laboratory is relatively straightforward. But the number of cells required to make thousands of liters of a vaccine is astronomical. For this reason, even the pharmaceutical giants have faced production and scaling difficulties beyond anything they had previously faced. 

It is a problem that would have been obvious from the start to anyone working within the industry but not well known to those outside it. There was a vague appreciation of logistical challenges, certainly, but many politicians didn't truly grasp the fundamental issues.

The European Union (EU) has created a problem for itself. By ordering as a bloc, rather than as individual nations, they traded agility for purchasing power. EU institutions operate according to strict, complex rules. Vaccine procurement went through EU processes, and high-quality contracts were duly signed, but at the cost of precious time. Deals were signed months later than other countries.

The German press, in particular, was furious. Germany is accustomed to being a powerhouse in logistics – the leaders rather than the followers. A savage picture in the magazine Bild bore images of former U.S. President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking what they got right. 

It said up to January 26, Israel had vaccinated 32 percent of citizens at least once, the UK 10.6 percent, the U.S. 6 percent, and Germany 2 percent. The EU-wide figure of 1.9 percent was little better. It did not help matters that Bild's UK reporter was offered the vaccine in England before receiving an appointment in Germany. The same effect, amplified across media and politicians within the EU, made the European Commission wary.

Then, AstraZeneca, the manufacturers of the Oxford vaccine, hit production issues. Similar issues had occurred at its British plant in September and October, but they'd had three months to resolve the problems associated with scaling up production. 

Because the EU had signed its contracts later, such "teething problems" hit much closer to the expected delivery date at its Belgian plant. With fewer doses being available than expected, the consequences were felt throughout Europe. The Spanish government was forced to pause the rollout of the vaccine in Madrid.

In the face of growing concerns among its member states, the commission acted uncharacteristically. If there's one thing that the European Commission does not generally do, it's panic. If anything, it's more likely to err on the opposite side. This time it acted differently. 

A passenger wearing a protective face mask talks on the phone at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, June 30, 2020. /Reuters

A passenger wearing a protective face mask talks on the phone at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, June 30, 2020. /Reuters

First, it attempted to divert doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in the UK at the Staffordshire and Oxfordshire plants. AstraZeneca politely refused, noting that its contract with the EU was on a "best effort" basis and that their contract very specifically referred to production "within the EU." 

Second, they announced the intention to introduce export controls on vaccines produced within the EU. An original plan to override the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit deal, just weeks after it came into force, was dropped in the teeth of opposition. Such "vaccine nationalism" has been criticized by the World Health Organization. Dr Mariangela Simao described it as a "very worrying trend," saying that "export bans or barriers" are "not helpful." 

To the EU's partial credit, it has said that it will not apply the controls on donations to the global Covax scheme aimed at helping poorer countries, of which the UK is a leading supporter. Still, there is a clear danger here. From the start of the pandemic, there has been a broad global sense of goodwill. 

China locked down very early and much more harshly than Western governments. By doing so, it all-but eradicated the virus from the Chinese mainland. It has therefore been able to focus on its cooperation with other countries on a vaccine, with the Sinovac vaccine being exported to numerous countries worldwide. The most important of these is Brazil, where one of the new variants is causing healthcare systems to be overwhelmed.

Vaccine nationalism and protectionism will do nothing to help bring this global pandemic under control. We should not even be thinking in terms of export controls. We should instead be asking more important questions. South Africa is facing a crisis under the weight of another new strain of the virus. 

We must avoid insular mindsets. Whether it is at the national level or the European Union level, the decisions we make affect the whole world. Protectionism, in the long term, will do far more harm than good. The European Union should urgently rethink its strategy on COVID-19 vaccine export controls.

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