BRUSSELS—The European Union will consider giving member states more power to block Covid-19 vaccine exports, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday, amid a slow rollout of shots and rising infections across the region.
Such a move could ratchet up tensions with the U.K., which has been the EU’s No. 1 export recipient but isn’t exporting vaccines to the bloc.
Ms. von der Leyen didn’t rule out using emergency powers in the EU’s basic treaties that allow the bloc to seize production in times of severe economic difficulties. The EU last used that power during the oil crisis of the 1970s.
“We are in the crisis of the century and I am not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible,” Ms. von der Leyen said. “So vaccine production and vaccine deliveries in the European Union must have a priority.”
The EU introduced a mechanism in late January that allowed member states to stop vaccine doses from being exported outside the bloc. Since then, only one export batch has been halted.
With the EU’s vaccination campaigns lagging far behind those in the U.K. and the U.S., pressure has been growing in recent weeks from EU leaders to broaden the use of the export ban or altering it to include vaccine ingredients.
Europe’s Covid-19 Battle
However, the EU has so far backed away from such a move on concerns it would trigger retaliatory export bans on ingredients that pharmaceutical companies in the EU use to make vaccines.
Ms. von der Leyen said the bloc could consider banning exports to countries that aren’t sending vaccines to the EU and whose vaccination campaigns are running ahead of the bloc’s.
She gave no timeline for making a decision, saying that would depend on the response of countries the EU is exporting to and whether the bloc’s vaccine deliveries continue to rise. The EU expects to receive around 360 million vaccine doses in the second quarter, compared with an expected 100 million in the first quarter following a big shortfall in deliveries from AstraZeneca PLC.
Ms. von der Leyen said there were no grounds for taking measures against the U.S., which has received more than one million doses from the EU and has continued supplying vital vaccine ingredients to the bloc. EU and U.S. authorities started discussions last week on ways to keep their mutual vaccine supply chains open.
Meanwhile, the EU has sent around 10 million vaccine doses to the U.K. since late January. Other leading destinations for EU-produced vaccines include Canada with four million, Mexico at three million, Japan at 2.7 million and Saudi Arabia at 1.4 million, according to data published last week.
The U.K. government hasn’t banned vaccine exports, but under the contracts it signed with vaccine providers it has locked in first-come, first-served agreements that have bolstered its own vaccination campaign. Last week, the U.K. summoned a senior EU diplomat in response to accusations by European Council President Charles Michel that Britain had an “outright ban” on exports.
According to a person familiar with the process, production of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE in the EU would grind to a halt within weeks if a vaccine war triggered U.K. bans on raw-material exports to the bloc.
The firms’ EU manufacturing, which is expected to produce more than half of the doses the bloc hopes to receive between April and June, is dependent on imports from the U.K., the U.S. and Canada, the person said.
In a recent videoconference with German policy makers and industrial leaders that included Chancellor Angela Merkel, BioNTech Chief Operating Officer Sierk Poetting said that boosting the production of lipid, a vital ingredient in so-called mRNA vaccines, would take up to eight months and warned against any export restrictions that could endanger the supply.
Europe is battling a rebound in coronavirus cases, fueled by the spread of more-virulent variants of the virus and prompting some authorities to tighten restrictions again.
Also Wednesday, fallout continued from several governments’ decisions to suspend use of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca on fears it might cause blood clots. Italy and France both agreed to resume rollouts of the vaccine if the EU’s top drug regulator maintained support for its use. The regulator is expected to give an update on Thursday.
Ms. von der Leyen said she hopes that will clarify the situation.
“I trust AstraZeneca. I trust the vaccines,” she said.
—Bojan Pancevski contributed to this article.
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