The European Union is pushing AstraZeneca to supply the block with more doses of its Covid-19 vaccine from plants in Europe and the UK after the company announced delivery delays, which increases frustration over the EU inoculation program.
The EU is carrying out more extensive vaccine checks before approval, which means a slow roll-out of shots compared to some other regions, especially the former EU member UK.
The issue has been exacerbated by Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca and Pfizer from the United States, which both announced delivery delays in recent weeks. AstraZeneca’s delay was caused by production issues at a factory in Belgium.
“UK factories are part of our advanced purchase agreement and that is why they have to deliver,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said at a news conference, noting that two of the four factories AstraZeneca has committed to supplying vaccines to the EU are in UK.
The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would have been a “shame” if Britain had remained in the European Union’s vaccine program rather than drawing up its own plan.
“I think we have been able to do things differently and better in some ways,” he told parliament.
AstraZeneca, which partnered with Oxford University in the UK to develop its vaccine, said last week that it would reduce supplies to the EU in the first quarter, with an EU official saying it would give the EU 31 million doses during the period, or 60 % less originally agreed due to production issues at a Belgian factory.
The EU has been pushing the company for a week to review these cuts, but it is unclear how it could force AstraZeneca to deliver the agreed amounts.
Pascal Soriot, the French CEO of AstraZeneca, told newspapers on Tuesday that the EU agreement was based on a best-effort clause and did not commit the company to a specific delivery schedule.
Soriot said that vaccines intended for the EU were produced in four plants in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
But European Commission officials said on Wednesday that under the agreement, the company had also undertaken to supply vaccines from two factories in the UK.
They added that the company had not provided sufficient explanations as to why doses could not be transported from warehouses to factories that had no production problems, such as those in the UK.
Reuters reported on Tuesday exclusively that the EU’s calls to divert doses from the UK had not been answered by AstraZeneca.
As an example of how the shortcomings bite, delivery delays are forcing health authorities in Spain’s richest regions in Madrid and Catalonia to limit vaccination even when a third wave of infection breaks out, officials said.
In addition to the confusion, a factory in Wales producing AstraZeneca’s vaccine was partially evacuated on Wednesday after receiving a suspicious package and police said a disposal unit was handling the incident.
Meeting or no meeting?
The EU has also threatened to monitor future exports of Covid-19 vaccines in retaliation for companies announcing delays, even though the EU Trade Commissioner excludes all export bans.
Frauds proved confusing over the timing of an EU-AstraZeneca meeting.
EU officials said the company had withdrawn from a virtual meeting scheduled for Wednesday, an Austrian minister said it was canceled on Thursday, followed by a statement from AstraZeneca that it would continue on Wednesday as planned.
The EU agreement with AstraZeneca is a pre-purchase agreement for the delivery of at least 300 million doses, provided that the vaccine is approved as safe and effective, with doses delivered in stages. A decision on approval is planned for Friday.
In a further sign of friction, EU officials also said that details revealed by Soriot about production capacity and the best effort clause were confidential and suggested that a possible breach of contract could occur.
Officials added that the best effort clause was standard in agreements with manufacturers of products under development.
“The best effort is a completely standard clause when you sign a contract with a company for a product that does not yet exist,” said an official. “Obviously, you can not impose a completely legal obligation” under these terms.
But the official said that the best effort meant that the company had to show a “comprehensive” effort to develop and deliver vaccines.
AstraZeneca said on Wednesday: “Each supply chain was developed with input and investment from specific countries or international organizations based on supply agreements, including our agreement with the European Commission.”
“Because each supply chain has been set up to meet the needs of a specific agreement, the vaccine produced from all supply chains is dedicated to relevant countries or regions and uses local manufacturing whenever possible,” the company added.
Philanthropist Bill Gates told Reuters that the rollout of vaccines was a “super-hard allocation problem” that put pressure on global institutions, governments and drug manufacturers.
“If you are a pharmaceutical company that did not make the vaccine, you are not under pressure. But those who did the vaccine – they are the ones being attacked,” he said. “Everything is very zero.”