[BRUSSELS] EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday that AstraZeneca cannot export its Covid-19 vaccine doses out of the European Union until it makes good on its promised deliveries to the bloc.
"I think it is clear that first of all the company has to catch up, has to honour the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines," she told a news conference after an EU summit dominated by the bloc's struggling vaccination rollout.
The blunt words on the UK-Swedish company threatened to deepen a row with Britain, which is looking to secure AstraZeneca shipments from the EU to fill an abrupt hole in its supplies that are threatening its previously smooth jabs programme.
Brussels and London have both laid claim to vaccine stocks in an AstraZeneca factory in the Netherlands.
London has bristled at Ms von der Leyen's European Commission this week toughening rules on vaccine exports to include assessments on how well countries such as Britain are doing in terms of vaccinations compared to the EU.
A joint statement by the British government and the commission on Wednesday said both sides are looking for ways to cooperate towards a "win-win" compromise, but no details were given.
In the summit on Thursday, EU leaders backed the commission's export-authorisation scheme while recognising that international supply chains in vaccine production must be protected.
"Accelerating the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines remains essential and urgent to overcome the crisis. Efforts to this end must be further intensified," they said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear what impact an EU ban on AstraZeneca exports would have on Britain or other countries.
Britain has mainly been using AstraZeneca for its rollout, with doses largely coming from the company's plants in the UK. Most of the EU's vaccine exports to Britain are of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine doses.
But Britain has announced a sudden AstraZeneca shortfall because millions of doses it expected from India - which boasts the world's biggest vaccine-making plant - are being delayed while that country scrambles to vaccinate its own population as infection cases surge.
Other countries could be more severely affected by an EU ban.
Australia, for instance, this month saw a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses handled in an Italian factory barred for export in the only such rejection so far under the EU scheme. It is relying on imports pending the opening of a domestic AstraZeneca plant.
While Britain has accused the European Union of vaccine "nationalism" over its moves, Ms von der Leyen stressed that the bloc was "the region that exports the most vaccines worldwide".
She noted that, since the beginning of December, companies in the EU had sent 77 million doses of Covid vaccines out of the bloc - with an EU official noting that more than a quarter of those went to Britain.
Since the beginning of the year, the EU has struggled to get needles into arms, largely because AstraZeneca ended up supplying only 30 million of the 120 million doses it had contractually committed to.
But Ms von der Leyen said the next three months will see overall vaccine supplies more than tripling, to 360 million doses, and she said the EU - population 450 million - was on track to see 70 per cent of adults fully vaccinated by mid-September.