EU tightens vaccine export rules, creates post-Brexit outcry

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The AstraZeneca office building in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Amid a dispute over expected shortfalls, the European Union is looking at legal ways to guarantee the delivery of all the COVID-19 vaccine doses it bought from AstraZeneca and other drugmakers as regulators are set to consider approving the Anglo-Swedish company's vaccine for use in the 27-nation EU. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BRUSSELS – The European Union introduced tighter rules Friday on exports of COVID-19 vaccines that could hit shipments to nations like the United Kingdom, deepening a dispute with London over scarce supplies of potentially lifesaving shots.

But amid an outcry in Northern Ireland and the UK, the European Commission made clear the new measure will not trigger controls on vaccines shipments produced in the 27-nation bloc to the small territory that is part of United Kingdom bordering EU member Ireland.

Under the post-Brexit deal, EU products should still be able to travel unhindered from the bloc to Northern Ireland.

“In the process of finalization of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected," the EU's executive arm said in a statement late Friday.

Amid a dispute with Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and British leader Boris Johnson had an unexpected phone call, during which the UK prime minister “expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have," a statement from the British government read.

The EU unveiled its plans to tighten rules on exports of coronavirus vaccines produced inside the bloc amid fears some of the doses it secured from AstraZeneca could be diverted elsewhere. The measure could be used to block shipments to many non-EU countries and ensure that any exporting company based in the EU will first have to submit their plans to national authorities.

The UK and Northern Ireland governments immediately lashed out at the move, saying the bloc invoked an emergency clause in its divorce deal with Britain to introducing controls on exports to Northern Ireland. Goods are supposed to flow freely between the EU and Northern Ireland under special arrangements for the U.K. region designed to protect the peace process on the island of Ireland.

But the EU later said it was not invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allowing either side to override parts of their deal.