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EU leaders grapple with surge of infections, vaccine issues

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the German parliament Bundestag ahead of an European Union summit at the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BRUSSELS – European Union leaders failed to settle a fight about the distribution of COVID-19 shots among member states Thursday but pledged to strengthen vaccine export controls and production on EU soil amid a shortage of doses and spikes in new cases.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz criticized the allocation of shots in the EU, saying that some countries were receiving more than their fair share at the cost of others. As the leader of a coalition of six countries, he demanded a correction mechanism, raising tensions between capitals from where the leaders were holding their remote summit.

“When member states have a lot less vaccines available to them than others, then I think this is a big issue for Europe," Kurz said. ”This could cause damage to the European Union like we haven’t seen in a long time.”

At the end of the summit, the EU's 27 nations were still locked in a dispute over how an upcoming batch of 10 million doses could be allocated to narrow the vaccine gap between member states and the leaders decided to push the talks to a future meeting of their ambassadors.

Under the joint procurement program set up by the European Commission, doses are allocated on a pro rata basis, but some nations are taking less than their share. A large majority of EU members think the system is working well but said some nations made a mistake to focus on AstraZeneca shots instead of diversifying their vaccine portfolios. AstraZeneca shots are cheaper and easier to handle than vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna but the Anglo-Swedish company has been at loggerheads with the bloc over repeated failures to deliver doses agreed in their contract.

The spread of more contagious virus variants has pushed hospitals in some EU countries to their limit. That, combined with the lack of vaccines available in Europe, has pushed several EU nations to impose strict lockdown measures over the Easter holidays.

Three months after vaccination campaigns started, Our World In Data showed that only 14% of the EU's 450 million residents has had a shot, while the figure stood at 46% in Britain.

An EU source said while the bloc had allowed 21 million vaccine doses to be exported to the U.K. since Dec. 1, while none had come to the EU from Britain.

“We can see clearly that British facilities are producing for Great Britain,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, yet she joined Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in seeking to calm the choppy waters between both sides. “We also want to assume a win-win situation here, that is, we want to act in a politically sensible way, because it is in part somewhat more complicated than one thinks at first glance.”

Rutte said that talks with the UK on getting a more equitable share of vaccines would resume Saturday.

The German Chancellor and the other EU leaders also discussed the pandemic with President Joe Biden via video-link, the first such discussion with a U.S leader in 11 years, and von der Leyen said both sides “agreed that we have a strong interest in working together to keep global supply chains functioning.”

The accusations of EU protectionism came when EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen strengthened export controls for coronavirus shots this week. Even if the move is detrimental to non-EU nations, the European Commission’s goal is to force vaccine manufacturers, especially AstraZeneca, to deliver the doses they agreed to in their contracts. The commission also wants to make sure that export reciprocity is enforced with countries that are producing vaccines or the raw materials needed for them.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi said that EU countries cannot remain “helpless” in front of the failure of some pharmaceutical companies that are not honoring commitments. He said that European citizens feel like they are being “deceived” by some drug makers, according to an EU official who relayed the exchange on condition of anonymity.

Overall, von der Leyen said the EU had allowed exports totaling 77 million vaccine doses, proof that the bloc should not be accused of vaccine nationalism. Only 62 million of vaccine doses have been administered across the EU.

The commission’s proposal has been divisive. While some countries see it as an instrument of last resort that should not be allowed to undermine the EU’s reputation as an open trading bloc, others called it a crucial tool to guarantee that doses and vaccine ingredients reach the bloc.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said “it is important to leave this gun unloaded,” while French president Emmanuel Macron insisted the EU is “no longer naive" with its export controls tool.

Despite the delays in vaccine deliveries, the EU's is still confident of having 70% of its adult population vaccinated by the end of summer. Based on the EU's contracts with manufacturers, the commission expressed confidence that 360 million vaccine doses will be delivered during the second quarter of the year.

Macron said that after a slow start in the production of vaccines in Europe, the EU will be in the position to develop between 2 or 3 billion doses per year by mid-2021.

“It means we will not only able to fulfill our needs, but also to massively export, and on the long term,” he said. “By the end of the summer, Europe will be the continent producing the most doses in the world.”

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Lorne Cook in Brussels, David Rising in Berlin and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.

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