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By John Chalmers
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union should explore legal means to secure supplies of COVID-19 vaccines it contracted to purchase if negotiations with companies over delayed deliveries prove unsuccessful, European Council President Charles Michel said in a letter.
The EU, at odds with Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca over its failure to deliver shots, has asked if it could divert supplies from Britain, and it also plans to tighten oversight of vaccine exports from the bloc.
Some of the EU's 27 member states have proposed legal action to force pharmaceutical companies to honour vaccine supply commitments, and the letter to four EU government leaders by Michel suggests that option is now under serious consideration.
He said that if it were "deemed politically opportune", EU action could include recourse to the bloc's Article 122 under which EU states would legally take "measures appropriate to the economic situation" in case of severe supply difficulties.
"This would give the EU and member states the legal means, by adopting appropriate urgent measures, to ensure effective vaccine production and supply for our population," Michel said in his letter to the leaders of Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Greece, which was seen by Reuters.
"I made this suggestion to the (European) Commission President von der Leyen so that we can explore this avenue imminently," he wrote.
Michel, who represents the EU's 27 member states, said he backed all efforts to resolve the matter with vaccine makers "through dialogue and negotiation".
"However, if no satisfactory solution can be found, I believe we should explore all options and make use of all legal means and enforcement measures at our disposal under the Treaties."
The EU failed to make a breakthrough in crisis talks with AstraZeneca on Wednesday and demanded the drugmaker spell out how it would supply the bloc with reserved doses of COVID-19 vaccine from plants in Europe and Britain.
The EU is making more comprehensive checks on vaccines before approval, which means a slower rollout of shots than former EU member Britain, and growing public frustration.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)