Trudeau to address vaccine concerns as EU threatens export controls on shots

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to reassure Canadians today that vaccine shots will continue to arrive even as the European Union threatens protectionist measures to limit the export of doses abroad.

The EU is poised to impose export controls on vaccines leaving the 27-member bloc to ensure supply on the continent. The proposal would require companies to seek approval before shipping vaccines to countries like Canada.

“Europe is determined to contribute to this global common good but it also means business,” Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, said in a video statement late Monday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa January 15, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau was asked this morning for his reaction to the prospect of the EU limiting the number of shots shipped from the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Belgium.

“That will be very disturbing, of course,” Trudeau said in French. “We are communicating with our partners in Europe to make sure the contracts signed by Canada are respected.”

Trudeau said he received assurances this morning from the CEO of Moderna that that company will meet its promised delivery timelines — 230,400 doses will arrive next week. That doesn’t really mean much, since the company produces its shots in Switzerland and the U.S. states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire — places that would be beyond EU export controls.

The Pfizer product has been the workhorse of the global vaccination effort so far; the company has shipped many more vaccine doses than Moderna, and more often. But deliveries to Canada will grind to a halt this week as a temporary shutdown at Pfizer’s plant in Belgium disrupts its shipments.

“We have worked extremely closely with European partners on vaccines,” Trudeau said.

“The close working relationship gives me assurance that the contracts we’ve signed and the supply … are in good shape. We will continue however to work very, very closely and monitor and ensure Canada gets all the doses we’ve contractually signed for.”

The EU — which approved the Pfizer and Moderna products later than Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom — has been criticized for the slow vaccine rollout in many member countries.

The EU’s medicines agency is expected to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine as early as this week but the company already has said it will deliver fewer doses than originally planned to the EU.

The EU signed a deal in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more. The EU had hoped that, as soon as approval was given, delivery would start straight away, but AstraZeneca has said “reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain” will result in doses than expected.

EU political leaders say they are concerned the companies are cutting supplies intended for EU countries in order to sell doses to other nations at higher prices. AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company headquartered in Cambridge, England, has delivered millions of shots to the U.K., which left the EU last year.

Stella Kyriakides, the European commissioner for health and food safety, said the body wants to put in place a “export transparency mechanism” in the coming days — a regime that would force companies like Pfizer (which makes vaccines destined for Canada in Belgium) and AstraZeneca to inform the body of vaccine shipments abroad.

The commissioner said the EU has helped to finance the rapid development and production of vaccines — the body has spent roughly 2.7 billion Euros on such efforts — and it wants what it ordered.

“In the future, all companies producing vaccines against COVID-19 in the EU will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries,” Kyriakides said at a press conference in Brussels Monday.

“The European Union will take any action required to protect its citizens and rights,” she said.

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