Stocks of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Wales. Doses produced in the UK have been directed in the first instance to residents in Britain. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
Internal figures leaked amid tit-for-tat with Boris Johnson over claims UK had export ban in place
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A total of 34m doses of coronavirus vaccine have been exported from the EU despite shortages for people living in the bloc, including 9m sent to the UK and a million to the US, which has a ban on sales abroad.
The internal figures were leaked as the EU was embroiled in a tit-for-tat with Boris Johnson over claims that the UK had an export ban in place.
A European commission spokesman conceded on Wednesday that the UK had not imposed a ban, following the allegation made by the European council president, Charles Michel, on Tuesday.
But officials said Michel wanted to know how many exports had been made from the UK as they highlighted the role of EU-based production sites in the global effort.
“We know that different countries have got different measures in place – that doesn’t concern vaccines, as far as we understand, coming from the UK,” a commission spokesman said. “But we know as well that we, the EU, are a very, very active exporter of vaccines and that this is not necessarily the case of all our partners.”
According to the latest figures seen by the Guardian and accurate as of 9 March, of the 34,090,287 doses exported from the EU to 31 countries, 9,106,162 went to the UK; 3,917,640 went to Canada; 3,134,204 went to Mexico; 2,720,210 went to Japan; and 1,368,900 went to Saudi Arabia. Other beneficiaries of EU exports included Hong Kong (1.3m), Singapore (967,030), the US (953,723), Chile (942,825) and Malaysia (751,140).
The majority of vaccines exported from the EU to the UK were made by Pfizer which distributes globally from its European production sites, it is understood. The EU has blocked only one export request under its controversial authorisation mechanism for vaccines, a shipment of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca doses from Italy to Australia.
On Tuesday, Michel, who chairs the summits of EU leaders and helps direct policy, had provoked an angry reaction in London after stating in a newsletter that the UK had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory”.
In a sign of the testy state of relations Michel’s claim about a British export ban was swiftly denounced by the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, as “completely false”.
The EU’s ambassador João Vale de Almeida was summoned to the Foreign Office but he was in Brussels. Instead, the EU’s charge d’affaires in London, Nicole Mannion, the Irish deputy head of the Brussels delegation to the UK, was received on Wednesday morning by Sir Philip Barton, the permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office. Barton is understood to have conveyed the government’s irritation about the claims.
A UK government spokesman said the meeting had been necessary “to discuss the issue of incorrect assertions in recent EU communications”.
Speaking to MPs on Wednesday, Boris Johnson waded into the row to emphasise that Charles Michel, the council president and a former prime minister of Belgium, had been wrong to allege the UK had imposed a prohibition on vaccine exports.
Johnson said: “We can also be proud of the support the UK has given to the international Covid response, including the £548m we’ve donated to Covax. I, therefore, wish to correct the suggestion from the European council president that the UK has blocked vaccine exports. Let me be clear, we have not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components.
“This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms. I trust all sides of the house will join me in rejecting this suggestion and call on our partners to work together to tackle this pandemic.”
In his contentious newsletter, Michel had sought to compare the EU’s exporting record to that of the UK and other countries, including the US, in response to suggestions that the bloc was verging on protectionism in barring a recent export of vaccines from Italy to Australia.
Two weeks ago Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European commission, had also suggested that Britain and the US had blocked the export of Covid-19 vaccines. Von der Leyen has asked US president Joe Biden to lift his government’s ban on exports.
The UK has regulations to stop profiteering on medicines and medical items such as masks but the government does not impose a ban on vaccine components or completed doses.
The UK did ensure that vaccine doses produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca at the sites in Staffordshire and Oxford were directed in the first instance to residents in Britain.
The EU has since been angered by the refusal of the Anglo-Swedish firm to redirect doses in the light of production shortfalls from European facilities. The company has in response pointed to its policy of having dedicated and largely separate supply chains for the UK and the EU.
An UK official said the high number of EU exports was a reflection of the business model of Pfizer and other major pharmaceutical suppliers who produce largely from European sites to distribute globally.
Michel tweeted on Tuesday night: “Glad if the UK reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports to EU and [other] countries. Different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines.”
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