The pressure is ramping up in the race across Europe to roll out coronavirus vaccines, amid the warning of a “shortage”.
The EU is threatening to impose strict controls on the export of jabs made in the bloc, potentially impacting supplies of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine that is made in Belgium.
It follows growing anger in the EU towards pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which is accused of failing to deliver the promised number of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine it developed with Oxford University.
More than 6.5 million people in the UK have had a dose of one of the coronavirus vaccines approved for use by the medicines regulator.
And around 7 million doses have been administered by health professionals, meaning the country is leading in total doses relative to its population compared to EU countries.
But Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said there is a global “supply shortage” of the vaccines, as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand.
He explained: “If there were unlimited vaccines then you wouldn’t see what the European Commission were saying yesterday, you wouldn’t see Italy attempting to sue one of the manufacturers, you wouldn’t see Germany in uproar as it is today.
“Of course there’s a supply shortage, and we’ve done very well in this country to get the supply we have available to us, the question is how do we use it to best effect.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged countries “to be collaborative” in the roll-out of vaccines.
“I’m sure that we can work with the EU to ensure that, whilst transparency is welcome, that no blockers are put in
place,” he said at an event hosted by Chatham House.
“I’m confident of the supply of vaccine into the UK. I’m confident that won’t be disrupted.
“But I would urge all international partners in fact to be collaborative and working closely together, and I think protectionism is not the right approach in the middle of a pandemic.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “AstraZeneca are committed to delivering two million doses a week to the UK and we are not expecting any changes to that.”
He admitted the Pfizer vaccine supplies will see stocks drop as it upgrades its factory, but added the number of jabs should then increase again in March.
The EU coordinates the purchase of vaccines for all of its 27 member states.
The European Commission says this approach avoids competition between EU countries, as they can all access vaccines on the same terms, irrespective of their size or purchasing power
The EU approved the purchase of 300 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in December. But the company was not able to supply the 12.5 million vaccines it promised the EU by the end of 2020, due to supply chain issues.
The head of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin, told the German magazine Der Spiegel, that the delay was caused because the EU wrongly assumed that several different vaccines would be ready at once and therefore spread its orders. He also said his company was ramping up its manufacturing capacity.
Other countries that have so far been more successful in vaccinating their populations approved the Moderna or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well.
The EU has now approved the Moderna jab and is doubling its order of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to 600m doses.
But vaccinations in parts of Europe have had to be paused after Pfizer temporarily cut deliveries to increase capacity at its processing plant in Belgium.
Supply problems have also been announced by AstraZeneca, provoking criticism from the EU after hearing it would receive a reduced number of vaccines.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with Oxford University, this month. The EU signed a deal for 300 million doses in August.
But last week the UK-Swedish pharmaceutical firm announced that due to “reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain” the number of initial doses for EU members would be lower.
The EU has warned that it could tighten the export of vaccines produced in the bloc. This could affect the UK, as Pfizer’s Belgian plant supplies the UK.