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What an EU crackdown on COVID-19 vaccine exports could mean for Canada

Click to play video: 'Concerns growing over impact of EU vaccine export controls' Concerns growing over impact of EU vaccine export controls
WATCH: Concerns growing over impact of EU vaccine export controls – Feb 1, 2021

The European Union is implementing drastic transparency measures to ensure pharmaceutical companies deliver their COVID-19 vaccines on time. These measures, which include strict export controls, have prompted concerns from Canadian officials that the added pressures could reverberate across the country, furthering vaccine shipment delays.

Vaccine rollouts in the EU have been slow compared to other countries and hampered by problems, including interruptions to their supply chains.

Meanwhile, Canada has also been criticized for its sluggish vaccination campaign. As of Feb. 1, Canada had administered nearly 1 million doses — representing less than 2 per cent of the country’s population.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine tracker — How many Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19?

How did we get here?

The EU hardened its stance against drugmakers that don’t honour their commitments to deliver their vaccines in accordance with previously agreed-upon shipment schedules, after accusing British vaccine developer AstraZeneca of failing to guarantee vaccine deliveries during negotiation talks last week.

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They are threatening stringent export controls on all vaccines produced in the bloc.

The measures would give bloc countries the power to deny authorization for vaccine exports to other countries if the vaccine developers making them have not adhered to existing contracts with the EU.

“Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum’s virtual event on Tuesday. “And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: New threats to Canada’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines' Coronavirus: New threats to Canada’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines
Coronavirus: New threats to Canada’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines – Jan 26, 2021

The EU is under extreme pressure to hasten vaccine rollout. The slower rollout comes as many governments in Europe are still struggling with stubbornly high COVID-19 case numbers.

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Like the EU, Canada is facing criticism about its vaccine rollout and has been shorted on deliveries from Pfizer and Moderna, both of which produce and ship their vaccines from Europe. The vaccine delays extend beyond Europe and Canada, including several states in the U.S.

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On Jan. 15, Pfizer-BioNTech announced that Canada, the EU and some other countries would receive fewer doses of the pharmaceutical giant’s vaccine in January due to a necessary upgrade at Pfizer’s European factory.

The delay won’t affect the U.S. — which is being supplied by a Pfizer factory in Michigan — but will hamper deliveries to Canada and the European Union.

Canada’s deliveries have been reduced by an average of 50 per cent over a four-week period between January and February. Last week, Canada received zero vaccines from Pfizer.

However, the federal government is expecting to receive 149,000 doses of the vaccine within the first two weeks of February.

Click to play video: 'Feds: Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan remains on track' Feds: Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan remains on track
Feds: Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan remains on track – Jan 28, 2021

How could this impact Canada?

So far, Canada has only authorized the use of two vaccines throughout the country, Pfizer and Moderna.

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COVID-19 vaccine developers under the EU measures will have to apply for permission to export doses outside of the block, which will be vetted by the EU’s 27 member states.

Canadian International Trade Minister Mary Ng said Monday that the EU has promised its new export controls on COVID-19 vaccines won’t affect Canada’s vaccine shipments — however, those promises have not been put in writing.

She acknowledged the export controls are “concerning.”

Despite the threat of export controls, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last Tuesday that Canada’s vaccine supplies were “very much still on track.”

He acknowledged that the situation brewing in Europe is worrisome but said that he remains “very confident” Canada will receive all its vaccine doses, as promised, by the end of March.

“We will continue to work closely with Europe to ensure that we are sourcing, that we are receiving the vaccines that we have signed for, that we are due,” Trudeau said.

In a readout of a call between him and Von der Leyen released Wednesday, the EU commissioner told Trudeau that the transparency measures are “not intended to disrupt exports of vaccines to Canada.”

Read more: EU dispute with AstraZeneca over COVID-19 vaccine commitments won’t affect Canada, Trudeau says

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What’s next?

Canada has begun looking into alternative trade options if the EU breaks its promises to Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to keep deliveries moving.

“We’re waiting to see if the EU process is going to pose any interruptions or not,” Steve Verheul, assistant deputy minister for trade policy and negotiations at Global Affairs Canada, told the House of Commons trade committee on Monday.

“But we’re certainly prepared that if this process does start to create problems, we will have steps we can take in light of that.”

— With files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press

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