But political opportunism is hard to restrain

EVEN BEFORE cases of covid-19 started to surge again, the slow supply of vaccines in Europe was a hot potato. The shortage appears to have an obvious solution. The EU could hold on to more of the covid-19 vaccines that pharmaceutical firms make for export. Thus far EU countries have received 70m doses of vaccines from drugmakers, while exporting 42m doses to 33 countries and getting little or none from abroad. On March 25th, as The Economist went to press, European leaders were due to discuss whether greater controls were needed. The proposals suggest halting exports to countries that are not sending jabs back, such as Britain or America, or blocking them to places that have vaccinated more of their population than the EU has.

Since January, firms wishing to export vaccines from the EU have had to seek permission to do so, a process that involves extra paperwork, missed flights and delays. This move has triggered ripples of concern around the world. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, head of the World Trade Organisation, has expressed dismay. These new controls were applied earlier this month, when Italy blocked the export of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine that were destined for Australia. Now the Netherlands says it is ready to prevent the export of the same vaccine to Britain.

Although the fight with Britain has drawn much of the attention, the EU is also cross with America, which is not letting drug firms export vaccines at all. Furthermore, it has imposed controls on the export of various parts and materials needed to make the vaccines. These controls are already delaying the arrival of crucial items needed in Europe (and elsewhere) to make jabs. Merck, in Germany, must now expand the production of specialist bags that are used to manufacture vaccines and which are running short. America has aggravated matters by not (so far) giving the EU any supplies from a large stockpile of the AstraZeneca vaccine that it has not yet authorised for use. It has, though, sent doses to Canada and Mexico.

If the EU were to get tough with America over vaccine exports, any retaliation would be likely to have grim consequences for global vaccine production. Little wonder, perhaps, that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, issued a warning on March 23rd that the EU needed to be “very careful” with export bans. Even Britain has the power to gum up production of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by withholding an essential raw ingredient, a specialist fat that is needed to make the shot and which is supplied by a firm in Yorkshire. Whether it would take such a drastic step is another matter.

Deploying export controls could damage the EU’s reputation. Last year pharmaceutical firms invested in new vaccine-production capacity around the world in order to improve the global supply. A lot of that investment went to Europe. Koen Berden, a trade expert at Vaccines Europe, which represents the industry across the continent, says it was made on the assumption that the bloc was a champion of the open trading system. Firms felt secure knowing that their factories could be used to make vaccines for the whole world.

Richard Hatchett, head of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a group that finances vaccine R&D, also warns of the dangers of trying to win any vaccine trade war. He says it is hard for political leaders to see every part of a complex supply chain. So the consequences of tit-for-tat exchanges are hard to predict. The knock-on effects of Europe’s threats are already being felt. Britain has sent an envoy to India to hunt for additional doses of vaccine from the Serum Institute. But any success will delay the supply of vaccines to the poorest countries that are waiting for supplies from the same source. Both Britain and the EU have given a great deal of financial support to the Covax initiative, which is shipping vaccine from the Serum Institute to poor countries.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s head, promised last year to keep the world united against the coronavirus and even helped create a group to promote global collaboration on items such as vaccines. Reality is now biting. But many Europeans look enviously at much higher vaccination rates in America, Britain, Israel and elsewhere, or at the sight of vaccines being exported to countries, such as Australia, that are not facing serious waves of the virus. The temptation to hold on to just a few extra vaccines, if only to fend off political pressure at home, may prove hard to resist.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “To have and to hold”