New regulations will make it easier to halt shipments of COVID vaccines outside of the EU. The move is likely to increase tensions with the UK, although both sides have said they want to find a "win-win" solution.
The European Union on Wednesday increased control over exports of COVID vaccines outside of the bloc, as supply difficulties continue to hamper vaccination efforts.
"The European Commission will introduce the principles of reciprocity and proportionality into the EU's existing [vaccine export] authorization mechanism," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, referring to a rule introduced in February. "We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens. Every day counts."
EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference that vaccine export licenses will be granted based on the epidemiological situation, the vaccination rate and access to vaccines in the destination country.
The new regulations would block shipments to countries like the UK with higher vaccination rates. The scheme will also drop previous exemptions that had allowed authorization-free export to 17 nearby countries, including Israel, Norway and Switzerland.
Dombrovskis said the export authorization mechanism was not targeting any particular country.
The expanded export controls by the Commission aim to ensure that planned exports by drugmakers do not threaten EU supply.
EU, UK to turn 'vaccine nationalism' row into 'win-win' situation
The increased export restrictions are likely to exacerbate ongoing tensions between the EU and the UK, which recently left the bloc and is a major importer of EU-produced COVID vaccines, having received 10 million vaccine doses so far.
After the commission announced their export plan, the EU and the UK issued a joint statement calling for cooperation on vaccines.
"Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take … to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens," the statement said. "We will continue our discussions," it added.
Dombrovskis had singled out the UK earlier in Brussels, pointing out that since January, the UK has exported zero doses into the EU.
"It's clear that we also need to look at those aspects of reciprocity and proportionality,'' he said.
The Commission had negotiated vaccine supply contracts on behalf of the 27 EU member states, and Brussels has been frustrated by the slow pace of deliveries.
The British-Swedish company AstraZeneca has been particularly beset by supply problems and has had to revise down contractual delivery estimates from 300 million doses to 100 million doses by the end of March.
On Wednesday, a UK government spokesperson said: "We are all fighting the same pandemic ... and we will continue to work with our European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took note of the new EU rules without mentioning vaccines but saying they could influence companies' decisions on where to invest.
"I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade, or interruption of supply chains, that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed," he told lawmakers.
Estimates from the University of Oxford show that only 9.5% of EU residents have received at least one vaccine shot, compared to 41% in the UK.
'Hidden' AstraZeneca doses found in Italy
Wednesday's new export rules were announced as a report emerged about 29 million AstraZeneca doses that were found during an inspection of a bottling plant in Italy. Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that the doses were "hidden."
There are conflicting reports as to whether the vaccines were intended for export out of the EU. Germany's DPA news agency reported that the doses were headed for the UK.
However, an Italian official told Reuters news agency that the doses were headed for Belgium. It is unclear if the doses would then be exported or distributed within the EU.
The EU has already blocked a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses headed from Italy to Australia. In total, the EU has shipped off around 43 million COVID vaccine doses.