European leaders have backed tightening the criteria to authorise the export of EU-made coronavirus vaccines in a bid to secure supplies for citizens inside the bloc.
The move follows weeks of shortages and delays, especially related to Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca, which has caused frustration across the continent.
Brussels plans to incorporate the principles of "proportionality and reciprocity" into the transparency mechanism that was introduced at the end of January and will assess "case by case" the export requests from pharmaceutical companies.
It means vaccination-leading countries like the UK could face a harder task getting vaccines from EU countries.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said EU leaders had found the Commission’s new vaccine export restrictions as “acceptable”, but added that he hoped it would never be used.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen confirmed Thursday that the EU has exported 77 million doses of vaccines to 33 countries since 1 December 2020.
As a lead donor to COVAX, it has also contributed to exports to low and middle-income countries.
She called on pharmaceutical companies to honour their contracts and match Europe’s “openness” when it comes to the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
She said that Europe was at the start of a third wave and although mortality rates are lower it highlights the importance of a fast and speedy vaccination programme. Von der Leyen said 88 million doses had been delivered to Europe and 62 million doses administered.
"Just to be clear we want to make sure that European will get its fair share of vaccines because we must be able to explain to our citizens that if companies export the vaccines to the whole world it is because they are fully honoring their commitments and it does not risk security of supply in the EU," she said.
A total of 4.1% of Europeans had now had two doses of the vaccine, she said, and said that if pharmaceutical companies “had stuck to their contracts, we could have been faster.”
Von der Leyen said that Europe was on track to vaccinate 70% of adults by June 2021.
She was speaking alongside Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, at the end of the first day of a two-day summit of European leaders and attended, virtually, by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Leaders also discussed Turkey and talks between Ankara and the EU on a closer relationship with the bloc.