Written by Caroline Bell

[This article first appeared in Briefings for Britain. We republish with kind permission. You can read Part 1 here.]

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Vaccine war? Mais non

European sources said that “a loaded gun had been put on the table” at the EU summit (vaccine export controls). Its barrel is pointing at London, with the aim of forcing the UK to offer Brussels some of its own vaccines in return for the EU graciously allowing vaccines paid for by the British government to be shipped from the Continent to the UK. Contract law? Private companies? Court injunctions? Forget it. This loaded gun of course has nothing to do with starting a vaccine war, according to French foreign minister Yves Le Drian. How ridiculous that would be. But in an interview on 26 March he went on to accuse the British government of “blackmail” (in relation to what is unclear) by refusing to surrender millions of doses of a vaccine which British citizens are happy to take, but which has been so trashed by European politicians that EU countries are storing more jabs than they can deliver. He then remarked that the UK “has a problem with second doses”, implying that the EU would ban the export of (mainly Pfizer) vaccines to the UK, thereby directly threatening the most vulnerable British citizens who received first dose vaccines a couple of months ago. This threat has now been explicitly made by French MEP Pascal Canfin (The EU is ready to deprive Britons of their second vaccine doses), who is “convinced” that Britain will give up UK-made AstraZeneca vaccines in order to receive second dose Pfizer vaccines (which, however, rely on British components).

If this is not a war, the imagery, the menaces and the possible consequences surely make it look like one.

The Italian job?

The British press kept abreast of Le Drian’s threats, but doesn’t seem to have noticed where this French assault is headed nor how it has been carefully set up. Clarification came on Saturday, in an interview given by France’s industry minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher, who was pleased to announce a big increase in the availability of vaccines in France from April.

Talking about AstraZeneca, she said without hesitation that the European Union “has secured doses by blocking doses in Italy. There is now a pool of 29 million doses [of AZ]. Out of 29 million doses, 16 million were destined for the European market. We are in discussions about the remainder of those doses, but the advantage now is that we have got our hands on them.”

It seems that far from considering just an export ban, the French government is talking about the seizure of private property from a pharmaceutical factory. And it has been planned. A totally false accusation was made the day before the EU summit that AstraZeneca had been “stockpiling” vaccines bottled at its factory in Italy in order to “smuggle” them to the UK. On a “tip off” from the French (of course) EU Commissioner Thierry Le Breton, Italian police raided the premises. Imagine that. Armed carabinieri descending on a pharmaceutical bottling plant and impounding vaccines… It transpired that the doses were in fact intended for the EU (Belgium was mentioned) and to third countries under the Covax scheme. The story went cold as the EU summit took place, with the public naturally assuming that the EU vaccines would be dispatched to EU countries and the Covax vaccines to their lawful recipients.

But remember: “We have got our hands on them”. Was the French minister lying about “discussions” (presumably with the EU) on dividing up the “hidden” vaccine stash? It appears not. France’s ubiquitous Europe Minister Clément Beaune announced on France 2 on 28 March that France would receive “at least 2 million” of these doses “found” in Italy … But then 16 million doses were already intended for the EU.

Communications war or vaccine war?

So, is this yet another front in the French communications war against AstraZeneca, to make President Macron look good by pretending to secure “hidden” vaccines which were destined for the EU anyway, or is France going to get 2 million extra doses from the 13 million AstraZeneca vaccines blocked in Italy which are due to be exported to poorer countries under the Covax scheme? It is an extremely important question.

If the latter were true (and one sincerely hopes it is not) it would represent not only the ultimate hypocrisy by M. Macron, so keen to burnish his humanitarian credentials by offering to vaccinate the entire globe, but a flagrant breach of the law.

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