The UK, the US and Japan face potential bans on receiving coronavirus vaccine exports from the EU after Brussels left them off a list of more than 100 countries exempted from tighter controls unveiled on Friday.
The European Commission’s carve-out from the measures to stop jab shipments covers 92 poorer countries and non-EU nations across Europe, the Middle East and north Africa — but not neighbouring Britain.
The tighter export rules revealed on Friday are coming into force as AstraZeneca has denied Brussels’ claims that it was unable to honour vaccine delivery commitments to the EU because it had diverted production elsewhere, including the UK.
The tighter export rules have triggered a backlash from business groups including the International Chamber of Commerce, which warned on Friday that the rules could lead to retaliation and have a “devastating” impact on global vaccine supplies.
The exemptions to the new EU rules cover European Free Trade Association members Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, as well as the six western Balkan nations that aspire to join the EU and the half-dozen members of the bloc’s eastern partnership.
Also exempted are the five countries of north Africa, as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel, which has been the fastest in carrying out Covid-19 vaccinations.
Other rich nations around the world such as the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia have also been left off the exemptions list.
EU officials insisted there was no intention to target individual countries. Some of the exemptions had been granted for reasons of solidarity, while other countries were carved out from the restrictions because they did not have their own production facilities, or had some level of integration into the single market.
“There was no reason to exempt the UK,” one official said.
The International Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 45m businesses worldwide, said in a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, that the move to limit exports could “very rapidly erode essential supply chains”.
The warning came as the global battle over scant supplies of Covid-19 jabs intensified, with Ms von der Leyen increasing pressure on AstraZeneca, the company at the centre of controversy this week over vaccine availability and whose jab received EU regulatory approval on Friday.
Speaking to German radio, Ms von der Leyen said the company had not provided any “plausible explanation” for why it will not supply the agreed number of doses.
The measures allow member states to request companies report all plans to export vaccines. National authorities would then have the power to stop shipments.
John Denton, ICC secretary-general, wrote: “Our immediate fear is that the proposed EU export controls risk triggering retaliatory actions by third countries that could very rapidly erode essential supply chains.”
The letter, which is dated Thursday and has been seen by the Financial Times, read: “Such a chain of events — which seems entirely foreseeable given the rapid escalation in trade barriers on personal protective equipment at the outset of the pandemic — would have devastating implications on the supply of vaccines globally, including across EU member states.”
The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations also said Brussels’ plans could “undermine the supply of vaccines in Europe and around the world”.
“It is vital that any measures proposed by the commission and the member states do not restrict, hold back, or have other negative impacts on exports of vaccines or the import of key vaccine manufacturing supplies,” it said.
The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ICC letter.
Charles Michel, European Council president, has proposed the use of new legal powers and “enforcement measures” to step up jab production and address “severe difficulties” in the supply of certain products.
One EU official suggested those proposals, floated in a letter this week from Mr Michel to the leaders of four member states, could enable the bloc to require companies to share patents, licences and knowhow needed to broaden vaccine production.