People queue to receive the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine outside a closed down Debenhams store that is being used as a vaccination centre in Folkestone, Kent, Britain January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Couldridge

Europe’s fight to secure Covid-19 vaccine supplies sharpened on Thursday (Jan 28) when Britain demanded that it receive all the shots it paid for after the EU asked AstraZeneca to divert supplies from the UK.

The EU, whose member states are far behind Israel, the UK and the US in rolling out vaccines, is scrambling to get supplies just as the West’s biggest drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc due to production problems.

As vaccination centres in parts of Germany and France cancelled or delayed appointments, the EU publicly rebuked Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for failing to deliver even though the vaccine has not yet been approved by the bloc.

That drew a terse response from AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot who said the EU was late to strike a supply contract so the company did not have enough time to iron out production problems at a vaccine factory run by a partner in Belgium.

Britain, which has repeatedly touted its lead in the vaccine rollout race since leaving the EU’s orbit on January 1, said its deliveries must be honoured.

“I think we need to make sure that the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered,” minister for the cabinet office Michael Gove told LBC Radio.

Asked repeatedly if the British government would prevent AstraZeneca diverting essential vaccine supplies from Britain to the EU, Gove said the crucial thing was that Britain received its orders as planned and on time.

The EU failed to make a breakthrough in crisis talks with AstraZeneca on Wednesday (Jan 27) and demanded the drugmaker spell out how it would supply the bloc with reserved doses of Covid-19 vaccine from plants in Europe and Britain.

Tensions have risen against the backdrop of supply problems from the West’s other main vaccine supplier – Pfizer – which announced delivery hold-ups.

Israel is by far the world leader on vaccine rollout per head of population, followed by the United Arab Emirates, the UK, Bahrain and the US. Behind them are Italy, Germany, France, China and Russia.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday it would have been a “great pity” if the UK had stayed in the EU’s vaccine programme rather than set up its own plan.

Britain has injected 7.1 million first doses of vaccines into arms, and is on track to deliver a shot to all over-70s, frontline medics and care workers, the clinically vulnerable and older care home residents – some 15 million people – by February 15.

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