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The EU’s row with AstraZeneca: a timeline

The EU and AstraZeneca, the company making the Oxford designed COVID-19 vaccine, have been caught up in a row over supply to the bloc. 

The Student takes a look at what went wrong, and why the EU were forced to U-turn after the triggering of article 16, of the Northern Ireland agreement, caused outrage not only in the UK but also in the EU. 

May 2020

The UK signs a deal to secure 100 million doses of the Oxford university vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca.

August 2020

It is not until three months later that the EU follows suit, securing  300 million doses to supply the 27 countries that are part of the bloc. 

At this point, there is still no guarantee that the vaccine will be safe and effective.

December 26 2020

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, tweets that the day marks a “touching moment of unity”, as COVID-19 vaccinations begin simultaneously with the Pfizer Biontech vaccine  in all EU countries.

December 30 2020

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for use in the UK.

January 22 2021

AstraZeneca announce that a fault at a factory in Belgium will reduce the number of vaccine doses delivered to the EU by more than 60%,  meaning that only 31 million doses will be delivered initially. 

It was expected that around 100 million doses would be delivered across the 27 EU member states within the first quarter of the year.

The EU commission call for vaccines made in two factories in the UK, to be exported to the EU, in order to make up for the doses lost.

AstraZeneca do not agree to this, claiming that the UK have the right to receive their share of the vaccines first, having  signed a deal three months earlier than the EU.

January 25 2021 

A press statement by EU Commissioner Kyriakides announces the EU may look to implement an export authorisation scheme, in order to have full transparency on where vaccines are being exported to and explain the apparent lack of vaccines for EU member states.

This would mean all companies delivering vaccines to non-EU states, would need prior permission, and may be blocked from exporting out of the EU by national regulators.

There is worry in the UK  that this may cause a problem with other deliveries, such as the Pfizer Biontech vaccine, which is produced in the EU and relies on exportation to the UK.

January 29 2021 

The EU approves the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use in its 27 member states.

Later that day, the EU puts in place the export authorisation scheme, invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This creates a vaccine hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

This is to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a ‘back door’ to allow EU produced vaccines into the UK.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster makes a statement saying that triggering Article 16 is an “act of aggression” and calls on the UK Government to also invoke Article 16 in order to ensure that there are no difficulties with vaccine supply.

After mounting pressure from London, Belfast and Dublin, the EU commission release a statement announcing they are reversing the decision to invoke Article 16 just before midnight.

This followed talks between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, where the Prime Minister had expressed his concerns about the plan to implement a hard border on Ireland.

The reversal is met with widespread relief in the UK and the EU but questions over why Von der Leyen ever invoked Article 16 in the first place remained.

Her original decision was described as an “outrage” and an “embarrassment” by several prominent European newspapers. 

What is Article 16? 

The issue of the border on Ireland was a problematic subject during Brexit negotiations.

The Northern Ireland Brexit protocol has allowed for no checkpoints between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which had historically been a politically sensitive border. 

Northern Ireland therefore still operates under EU custom regulations, meaning goods flow freely between the countries without checks at the border. 

Article 16 was included to allow for either side of the border to override parts of the withdrawal agreement should there be a serious danger of “societal difficulties” and suspend the usual flow of goods over the border. 

It is unclear what exactly falls under this definition, and if a vaccine shortage is a valid reason for implementation of a hard border on Ireland.

Image: Christian Emner