EU leaders grapple with surge of infections, vaccine issues

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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.