UK weighs vaccine export restrictions

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LONDON  — The U.K. government has sought legal advice on preventing coronavirus vaccines or their ingredients being exported, suggesting that ministers are actively considering countermeasures they could deploy if other countries start restricting cross-border movements of vaccines.

This power would be limited only to the needs of the domestic population and would not stop the export of additional supply to markets overseas, according to two government officials and two legal experts familiar with the matter. 

The move follows an angry fight between leading vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca and the EU over reductions in the supply of shots the bloc claims the drugmaker promised. Brussels wants it to make up the shortfall with doses manufactured in the U.K. and from Saturday will impose a mechanism to allow EU countries to block exports of vaccines if the bloc’s own purchase orders have not be met. The step will include restrictions on the export of vaccines to Northern Ireland.

At a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had “confidence in our suppliers” — and urged Brussels not to go against a spirit of “multinational cooperation” in combating the pandemic.

“I don’t want to see restrictions on vaccines or their ingredients across borders. I think that’s pretty commonsensical, and I’m sure would be widely supported across the EU as well,” he added. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned the EU against vaccine “protectionism.”

But on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron told the Guardian that there should be restrictions on vaccine exports. “It should be controlled because there is questionable behaviour and we will be receiving fewer deliveries that do not honour the contractual engagements agreed,” he said.

A potential export ban by the U.K. would need to be applied in a strict and limited way, legal experts said, in order to avoid inciting further escalation of restrictions among trade partners. It would likely only be used as a retaliatory measure if there was a hardening of EU export restrictions for vaccines such as the Pfizer/BioNTech shot, which is imported into the U.K. from Belgium.

The countermeasures being considered are distinct from export restrictions the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) already has in place on COVID-related and medicines and flu vaccines. These restrictions prevent drugs intended for British use from being sold on by middlemen abroad only if there’s a domestic shortage in the U.K.

The distinction is important because those existing DHSC powers don’t stop drugmakers with the right marketing authorization for a drug from being able to export it. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine, though, does not go to a wholesaler or middleman in the U.K. Instead it goes direct from British manufacturing sites to DHSC warehouses for onward distribution to vaccine centers, hospitals and GP surgeries, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The export intervention, if deemed necessary, would follow a similar legal logic: it would be limited to there being a domestic shortage of supply and only cover doses intended for the U.K. market. That would include the 100 million doses according to the timeline agreed by the British government and AstraZeneca and similar provisions with other vaccine makers.

Such a step also wouldn’t be against either domestic law or international trade rules, and could be exercised by emergency powers to requisition goods under the Civil Contingencies Act. In practice, the enforcement of a temporary requisition order would likely fall to multiple departments, including the Cabinet Office, DHSC, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 

This step would also be sanctioned by health care provisions in international trade law. Restricting exports would be allowed under public health and national security exemptions detailed in Article 20 and 21 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a foundation of international trade law that the EU and U.K. are party to.

Asked if ministers had sought legal advice on export restrictions, a British government spokesperson declined to comment. In a statement, they said that the vaccine rollout was on target. “We are in constant contact with the vaccine manufacturers and remain confident that the supply of vaccine to the U.K. will not be disrupted,” the spokesperson said. 

“This pandemic is a global challenge and international collaboration on vaccine development continues to be an integral part of our response.”

The U.K.’s supply of AstraZeneca vaccine is largely made within the U.K., according to officials. Tom Keith-Roach, president of AstraZeneca’s U.K. arm, told British lawmakers earlier this month that the drugmaker had “built dedicated supply chains across the world to fulfil our contractual responsibilities. We have a dedicated U.K. supply chain for drug substance manufacture and for fill and finish.”

AstraZeneca didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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