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AstraZeneca exports can be banned if bloc not supplied first: EU chief

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A medical worker holds a vial of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 on March 19, 2021 at the San Giovanni Bosco Hospital in Turin. – Italy on March 19, 2021 again began administering AstraZeneca vaccines, five days after suspending the programme over safety fears despite the worsening coronavirus situation. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) on March 18 declared the jab “safe and effective”, and Italy’s AIFA regulator subsequently lifted its nationwide ban. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP)

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the bloc did not receive its deliveries first, in a worsening row over delayed shipments that has caused international tensions.

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“We have the option of banning a planned export. That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries,” von der Leyen said in an interview with Germany’s Funke media group.

The warning comes as the European Union struggles to speed up its Covid-19 inoculation campaign, just as many member states are battling rising infection rates that have forced renewed restrictions.

Von der Leyen said Anglo-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca had delivered only 30 percent of the 90 million vaccine doses it had promised for the first quarter of the year.

The company has blamed production delays at its EU plants, but European officials are furious that AstraZeneca has been able to deliver its UK contract in full while falling short on the continent.

European Commission president von der Leyen had on Wednesday already threatened to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure “reciprocity” with other suppliers.

“All options are on the table,” the former German defence minister said, adding that the vaccine situation would be addressed among EU leaders at talks next week.

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The EU has already set up special oversight of vaccine exports in which manufacturers contracted to supply Europe must declare if they intend to export doses outside the bloc.

Most of the EU’s worry is over Britain, where the inoculation campaign has progressed at a much faster pace than in continental Europe.

Brussels has accused London of operating a de facto export ban to achieve its vaccine success, a claim furiously denied by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

The EU’s export ban mechanism must first be triggered in an individual member state and then be approved by the European Commission before it can be enforced.

The mechanism has so far only been applied once, with Italy blocking the export of a 250,000 dose shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, citing “persistent shortage” and “delays in supply”.

Not all EU members support export bans, which could upset global supply chains, and countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have urged caution.

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