Ursula von der Leyen has threatened to block vaccine exports to countries with higher jab rates than Europe while demanding that Britain hand over more doses of AstraZeneca despite it being banned on most of the continent.
Without naming Britain directly, the EU president said Europe is still exporting vaccines to other countries while receiving few doses in return and threatened to impose more export bans to ensure ‘reciprocity’.
‘All options are on the table. We are in the crisis of the century. And I’m not ruling out any anything for now,’ she told reporters in Brussels.
She also lashed out at British-Swedish drug-maker AstraZeneca for ‘under-producing and under-delivering’ doses of its vaccine, saying it is to blame for the slow place of Europe’s roll-out.
That is despite the fact that 19 countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, have halted the use of AstraZeneca jabs over fears they cause blood clots, meaning around 7.5million doses are currently sitting un-used.
Jeremy Brown, who is part of the committee advising the British government on its vaccination programme, said today that he cannot understand the logic of such a ban and warned that it will cost more lives than it saves.
He added that links between AstraZeneca’s jab and blood clots appears ‘spurious’ with fears being ‘overblown’, and that Europe’s actions will hurt vaccine drives around the world by casting doubt on an ‘incredibly safe [and]very effective’ jab.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Professor Brown said: ‘I don’t understand why this is happening, to me it doesn’t seem at all logical because we do know the vaccine works, it prevents about 85 per cent of admissions to hospital after one dose. Even in the very old and the frail.
‘By rolling out the vaccine you prevent deaths, by stopping the vaccine they will cause more illness and more deaths by this week or two hiatus using the vaccine than they will ever prevent.
‘I honestly don’t really know [how they reached that conclusion].
‘If people sit back and look at the overall picture which is this vaccine is incredibly safe, its very effective, and we are in the middle of a pandemic that we will not get out of until everyone has been vaccinated.
‘To interrupt the vaccine for what will turn out – most likely – to be a spurious reason seems unnecessary.’
European countries rushed to halt their roll-out of the jabs this week, following the lead of a few smaller countries which paused vaccination last week, after a few dozen cases of blood clots occurred amid millions of doses that have been handed out.
But the hasty decision has now sparked a civil war, with the European Commission issuing a rare rebuke to EU leaders on Tuesday, urging them to keep using AstraZeneca shots to protect as many people as possible.
‘Every dose counts,’ health minister Stella Kyriakides told a virtual summit, pointing to 14million vaccines that have gone un-used in Europe including 7.5million AstraZeneca jabs.
Meanwhile Poland’s Prime Minister vowed to keep administering the shots in defiance of 19 countries which have paused their use, accusing other leaders of ‘giving in to panic’ about blood clots.
In Germany, health minister Jens Spahn is facing calls to resign over his handling of the crisis including the decision to block AstraZeneca jabs, with Wolfgang Kubicki, leader of the FDP, accusing him of undermining trust in the vaccine.
‘We should open up AstraZeneca to everyone,’ he said. ‘The vaccine is of no use if it is not vaccinated quickly enough.’
Angela Merkel’s CDU party also slumped to its lowest rating since the start of the Covid pandemic in a new poll released today, as public confidence in her management of the crisis ebbs away.
Elsewhere France’s Emmanuel Macron – also facing an election this year – and Italy’s newly-installed premier Mario Draghi signalled an imminent U-turn on AstraZeneca once the European Medicines Agency gives its final verdict on Thursday.
But the EMA has already insisted twice – once last week and once on Tuesday – that any risks from AstraZeneca’s vaccine are far outweighed by the benefits and that there is no reason to stop using it.
Italy’s medicines authority yesterday admitted the decision to stop using the Oxford-AstraZeneca was ‘political’, while in Germany, Angela Merkel’s closest allies hit out against the decision to suspend its use when cases were rocketing across the country.
Berlin officials yesterday defended the move, claiming that seven cases of a rare type of blood clot had occurred in the 1.6 million people it had given the jab – a higher number than expected. The German Health Ministry argued ‘it would not be responsible to continue vaccinating without an investigation’.
But in sign of the chaos, France and Italy were last night already signalling they could make a U-turn – suggesting they could restart use of jab once EMA gives its final verdict tomorrow (Thursday).
Poland said yesterday that it would carry on using the AstraZeneca jab, accusing other states of giving in to ‘disinformation’.
The PM’s chief of staff said: ‘Most countries that have temporarily suspended (AstraZeneca) vaccinations have given in to panic caused by media-fuelled information about alleged complications.’
British regulators, politicians and scientists maintain the jab – which has already been given to 11 million Britons – is safe and that any links to blood clots are purely coincidental.
Last night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘The Oxford/Astra-Zeneca jab is safe… that is what the British regulator says, but also the World Health Organisation and even the European regulator.
‘We know that over 10 million people have had it in this country.’
‘We keep the effects of these vaccines under review all the time and we know that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is saving lives in the UK right now. So if you get the call, get the jab.’
Sweden, Portugal and Lithuania became the latest EU countries to pause use of the vaccine yesterday, taking the total number who have suspended or restricted use to 19.
Downing Street suggested these countries were wrong to stop administering the Astra-Zeneca jab and that Boris Johnson would be ‘perfectly happy’ to receive it himself.
Reassurances from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and EMA have so far failed to quell the growing crisis, with both holding emergency meetings this week.
The EMA confirmed it has been investigating since the concerns were first flagged last week, with its full findings due to be published tomorrow afternoon (Thurs).
Emer Cooke, executive director of EMA, told a press briefing on Tuesday there was no current indication that the Oxford vaccine was the cause of the ‘very rare’ reported blood clots.