EU export ban triggered ‘domino effect’ for PPE says expert
The EU has been at the centre of an international row over vaccine supplies, having lashed out at the UK-based developer, AstraZeneca, for not delivering on the agreed quantities of jabs. AstraZeneca’s initial contract with the bloc promised to provide 80 million jabs in the first three months of this year — however, following a production delay at a European plant, this number has plummeted to just 30 million. In retaliation, the bloc implemented an emergency Brexit measure to prevent any vaccines from crossing from the EU member state of Ireland into Northern Ireland, shocking the international community.
While this clause was revoked within hours, the damage was done and the EU had been blamed for acting impulsively and demonstrating vaccine nationalism.
BBC journalist Tim Harford explained in the BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘How to Vaccinate the World’, that this was just the latest example of rivalry between the wealthy nations as they grapple to control the virus.
He commented: “When supply is short, people are going to start arguing, they get their elbows out.”
Dr Sharifah Sekalala, associate professor at Warwick University’s Law School, then explained that it is within each country’s legal rights to block exports.
She explained: “In 2020, the European Commission issued export bans for a number of goods like PPE, and the UK, under the Coronavirus Act, had export bans on certain essential medicines.
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“So they are within their rights to have export bans on certain things that are essential for fighting the crisis.”
Mr Harford asked: “So will we see a domino effect? Once one nation starts blocking, is everyone going to start blocking? Is everyone suddenly going to pull up the drawbridge?”
She replied: “Exactly. That’s what we saw [before] — there are studies that show that when we did this for PPE, when countries started to do this for PPE, it made supply problems worse instead of better because everyone was hoarding what they have instead of facilitating free trade.
“That was problematic at the height of the crisis.”
The shortage of PPE became apparent at the very start of the pandemic, and was particularly trying in the UK.
A prominent procurement manager claimed in May that the UK was “three or four weeks behind some of the biggest buyers in the world” in pushing for overseas PPE supplies, and “that’s all that matters because that’s when all the deals are done”.
This echoes the EU’s slow start to finding an agreement with a vaccine developer.
The bloc signed a contract with AstraZeneca three months after the UK, meaning it was far more likely to not receive all the jabs it had requested.
The EU also struggled with PPE when the outbreak first hit Italy, having flown 56 tonnes of the protective supplies to China in February.
As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded, during these months “countries chose protectionism over cooperation”.
The bloc ended up creating a scheme to bulk buy PPE but the UK was not included, reportedly because Downing Street did not receive an email to be part of the initiative.
The World Health Organisation also issued a warning back in March last year that the ability of nations to respond to the health crisis was limited by “the severe and increasing disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment — caused by rising demand, hoarding and misuse”.
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While the PPE issues appear to have subsided, the vaccine shortages show little sign of improving, according to Rasmus Bech Hansen.
CEO of Airfinity, a science and technology company, he told BBC Radio 4 that the shortages seen so far were “incredibly predictable and foreseeable”.
He continued: “It takes time [to expand] — we will see a scale-up of production.
“I’m not saying that the linear model that we are producing from now is the same one we will be producing from in six months’ time — far from it.
“We will also be likely to have more vaccines.”
However, there is no guarantee that this vaccine shortage and international spats over supplies are going to come to an end in that period.
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He explained: “If you compare supply and demand, and even do some quite optimistic forecasts, it just doesn’t add up for a long time.
“We need 12 billion vaccines by the end of the year to be even close to vaccinating the world.
“I can say very clearly that’s not going to happen in 2021. I don’t think we have seen any signs that this is going to happen.”
Mr Bech Hansen added that the EU saw the vaccine roll-out as a “procurement challenge”, and focused on negotiating the price of the vaccines and liability rather than the likelihood that the developers could meet the demands.
It has subsequently been left grappling for vaccine supplies against its rival nations.
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