Much of the European Union has been devastated by COVID-19 for almost a year. Now, the 27-country bloc is struggling to administer the vaccine to its populations in a timely manner, resulting in bureaucratic infighting between the E.U. and the U.K., which just left the alliance for good.
Compared to the U.S. and the U.K., which have had their own problems with vaccine distribution, the E.U. is a notable laggard. The slow pace in countries like Germany and Italy were already a source of consternation for E.U. citizens and officials, especially as a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus has raged through the U.K.
Things came to a head this week, after the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca drastically reduced the number of vaccine doses it would make available to the E.U. over the coming months, down to 31 million doses from the 80 million the bloc had hoped for by March. Pfizer also reported a delay at its Belgian plant, which will affect rollout to neighboring countries.
In response, the E.U. says that AstraZeneca, which was given funding by the bloc, must now provide warning before it sends its vaccines to non-E.U. countries, with the E.U. health commissioner promising to “take any action required to protect its citizens.” Multiple countries in the bloc are considering legal action against the company if it does not cooperate.
AstraZeneca claims that the doses were not guaranteed, and that the U.K. simply ordered up more doses before the E.U., making the company legally bound to deliver them first. The E.U. did get a boost when Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company, pledged to help produce 125 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine by the end of the summer. But that hardly solves the near-term problems facing the member states.
The U.K., which was the first country to approve the Pfizer and AstraZeneca candidates, and whose vaccination program has sped up in recent weeks, is none too happy with the prospect that the E.U. will curtail future doses to its citizens; the country’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi warned about “the dead end of vaccine nationalism.” As long as supply shortages remain, the two sides, already split over the U.K.’s drawn-out exit from the E.U., are likely to remain even more at odds.