For the first time, on the 4th of March Italy has blocked a shipment of 250,000 Astrazeneca vaccines headed to Australia.[1] The decision was taken on the basis of the Commission Implementing Regulation 2021/111 making the export of Covid-19 vaccines produced in the EU subject to the production of an export authorization by the national authorities.[2]The Implementing Regulation was adopted in light of the delay in the supply by vaccines manufacturers[3] and the Commission’s fear of the inevitable shortage of vaccines in Europe.[4] This mechanism imposes an authorization procedure proceeding exports only if the manufacturers have entered in an Advance Purchase Agreement with the Commission (APA).[5] As prescribed by Recital 17, the export control will be in force until the end of March 2021, since it was adopted on the 29th January 2021,[6] and it cannot exceed the 6 weeks provided for in Article 5(5) Regulation 2015/479.

International response 

Even though the Commission explained that the only exports that will be restricted are the ones that are absolutely necessary,[7] the international community did not welcome the measure.[8] The Regulation has likely planted fears in EU trading partners, considering that not every country has a vaccine manufacturer in its own territory. WHO’s vice-head Mariangela Simao has classified the measure as a “very worrying trend.”[9] Moreover, other issues have been already underlined by the Professor Simon Evenett who claimed that the standard for authorizing exports is unclear, long, and arbitrary.[10] In fact, for example, Article 1(4) of Regulation 2021/111 provides for an export authorization to be delivered if its volume does not pose a threat to the execution of the APA; however, there is not specification in the Regulation of what actually constitutes a threat in this context. 

The main critic to Regulation 2021/111 is its underlying nationalism. Vaccine nationalism is when a country prioritizes its own vaccine needs above others.[11] Afterall, the pandemic has hit the whole world hard, what would be the point of vaccinating Europe if other countries will not have access to it? This approach will only slow down the process of both health and economic recovery.[12] In fact, reserving doses of Covid-19 vaccines and imposing restriction to international trade can only lead to an unjust and unequitable source allocation.[13] According to recent statistics, the richest countries have tried to secure enough vaccines for their population by buying more than they actually need. Pre-market purchase commitments have demonstrated that high-income countries have secured 51% of the production, even though they represent 13.7% of the world population.[14]

Fig. 1: pre-market commitments for coronavirus disease 2019 vaccines per capita.[15]

Notwithstanding, the criticism, Europe has defended itself by pointing out that the Implementing Regulation excludes a substantial number of countries from the restriction of Covid-19 exports. Recital 10 of the Regulation 2021/111 provides for a number of exclusions to this measure, namely supplies in the context of humanitarian emergency response, exports to COVAX facilities,[16] exports purchased or delivered through COVAX, UNICEF, PAHO with destination to any other COVAX participating country, and vaccines bought and resold or donated to third countries by Member States.[17]Likewise, the president of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen underlined that “… we will of course continue to uphold our commitments towards low and middle income countries.”[18] Thus, this measure does not seem to be a risk to the low income countries, but it is to any country that had undertaken contractual obligations with European vaccine manufacturers and does not qualify within the exemption of the Regulation 2021/111, such as Australia. 

Is the export restriction legal?

The legal basis relied upon by the Commission to adopt Regulation 2021/111 is Regulation 2015/479 on common rules for exports.[19]  Under the latter Regulation, Article 5 provides the legal basis for the imposition of an export authorization in order to prevent a critical situation from arising on account of a shortage of essential products.

Moreover, Regulation 2021/111 claims that the measures deemed necessary are to be implemented in a manner that is “targeted, transparent, proportionate, temporary, and consistent with WTO obligations.”[20] In particular, under WTO rules: GATT 1994, there is a general prohibition of restriction of trade;[21] nonetheless, exemption is allowed if “export restrictions or prohibition are temporary applied to prevent or relieve critical shortages of food stuff or other products essential …”[22]

Therefore, considering the above-mentioned legal basis, the Union’s measure seems to be legal and in compliance with international obligations.[23] Still a criticism may arise in light of Article 21(e) TEU setting as a Union’s objective “encouraging the integration of all countries into the world economy, including through the progressive abolition of restrictions of international trade.” As it seems, the Commission has disregarded this Treaty objective. 


[1] Deautsch J & Hanke Vela J, ‘Italy blocked a shipment of Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine headed to Australia’ (EU Politico website, 2021) available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-blocks-shipment-of-oxford-astrazeneca-vaccine-headed-to-australia/?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR0X8SEdoU2wQgkwH8iEFWisYFNLq54UVpP5e5K5QC1HJgFFoaFUbs-5O4g#Echobox=1614880592 last accessed 5th March 2021. 

[2] Regulation (EU) 2021/111 making the exportation of certain products subject to the production of an export authorization, 29.01.2021, OJ L 31 I/1. 

[3] Ibid Recital 3.

[4] Ibid and Recital 4. 

[5] Article 1(1) Regulation (EU) 2021/111 making the exportation of certain products subject to the production of an export authorization, 29.01.2021, OJ L 31 I/1. The procedure for the export authorization is laid down in Articles 2 and 3 Regulation (EU) 2021/111. 

[6] Ibid Article 4. 

[7] Ibid Recital 9.

[8]Dewan A, ‘A fight between the EU and the UK reveals the ugly truth about vaccine nationalism’ (CNN website, 2021) available at:  https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/30/europe/uk-eu-astrazeneca-vaccine-nationalism-gbr-intl/index.html last accessed 27th February 2021. BBC News, ‘Coronavirus: WHO criticizes EU over vaccine export controls’ (BBC website, 2021) available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55860540 last accessed 27th February 2021. 

[9] Ibid BBC News, ‘Coronavirus: WHO criticizes EU over vaccine export controls.’ 

[10] Evanett S, ‘Export controls on Covid-19 vaccines: has the EU opened Pandora’s box?’ (VOXeu website, 2021) available at:https://voxeu.org/content/export-controls-covid-19-vaccines-has-eu-opened-pandora-s-box last accessed 27th February 2021. 

[11]Kretchmer H, ‘Vaccine nationalism – and how it could affect us all’ (World Economic Forum website, 2021) available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/what-is-vaccine-nationalism-coronavirus-its-affects-covid-19-pandemic/ last accessed 27th February 2021. 

[12] For statistics see ibid. 

[13] So A D & Woo J, ‘Reserving coronavirus disease 2019 vaccines for global access: cross sectional analysis’ [2020] BMJ.   

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Per capita purchase commitments = the purchase commitments compared to the population size of the country. It can be seen that Canada has purchased 9.5 doses per person. See So A D & Woo J, ‘Reserving coronavirus disease 2019 vaccines for global access: cross sectional analysis’ [2020] BMJ.   

[16] COVAX is a pillar under the WHO that ensure equitable and just access to Covid-19 vaccines. It offers a vehicle to support low and middle income countries through the international community. It can be defined as an international initiative to share vaccines. See World Health Organization, ‘COVAX: Working for global equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines’ (WHO website) available at: https://www.who.int/initiatives/act-accelerator/covax last accessed 27th February 2021. See also The COVAX facility: Interim Distribution Forecast (2021) available at: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/act-accelerator/covax/covax-interim-distribution-forecast.pdf?sfvrsn=7889475d_5 last accessed 27th February 2021. 

[17] See also Article 1(5) Regulation (EU) 2021/111 making the exportation of certain products subject to the production of an export authorization, 29.01.2021, OJ L 31 I/1. 

[18] European Commission Press Release, ‘Commission puts in place transparency authorization for exports of COVID-19 vaccines’ (EU Commission website, 2021) available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_307 last accessed 27th February 2021. 

[19] Regulation (EU) 2015/479 on common rules for exports, 27.03.2015, OJ L 83/34. 

[20] Recital 9 Regulation (EU) 2021/111 making the exportation of certain products subject to the production of an export authorization, 29.01.2021, OJ L 31 I/1.

[21] Article XI(1) General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (“GATT 1994”) World Trade Organization’s Treaty. 

[22] Ibid Article XI(2)(a). There are other possibilities for exemption from the general rule under Article XX GATT 1994, see WTO Secretariat, ‘Export Restrictions and Prohibitions: information note’ (World Trade Organization, 2020).

[23] For a different opinion, see MacLennan S, ‘COVID-19 vaccines: is it legal for the EU to restrict exports?’ (The Conversation, 2021) available at: https://theconversation.com/covid-vaccines-is-it-legal-for-the-eu-to-restrict-exports-154527 last accessed 28th February 2021.