EU pressures Astrazeneca after lab announces Covid-19 vaccine delivery delays

Verbal duel between the European Union and AstraZeneca has escalated as both sides publicly argue over coronavirus vaccine delays that threaten the bloc’s fragile recovery from the pandemic.

The dispute began on Monday when EU officials said AstraZeneca had informed them that due to production problems, the company intends to deliver in the coming weeks «significantly less» vaccine doses than agreed.

The European Commission has ordered 400 million doses on behalf of EU member states and is ready to start distributing them across the block as soon as the vaccine is approved. Maybe it will happen this week.

«Pharmaceutical companies and vaccine developers have moral, social and contractual obligations that they must abide by, the EU Health Commissioner told reporters Wednesday. Stella Kyriakides. – The view that the company is under no obligation to supply [vaccines] … is neither correct nor acceptable».

«We are in a pandemic. We are losing people every day. These are not numbers, these are not statistics, these are people with families, friends and colleagues», – she added.

In Germany, one year since the arrival of the virus, there are no signs of a decrease in the number of infections in the country. Portugal reported a record number of daily deaths in the past 24 hours. EU countries have strict restrictions.

A harsh rebuke from the European Union came after the CEO of AstraZeneca Pascal Sorio stated that the company agreed to attach «every effort» to deliver doses that EU countries have ordered but have not adhered to on schedule. AstraZeneca said in a statement that it still intends to deliver tens of millions of doses to EU countries in February and March..

Sorio told Italian newspaper la Repubblica on Tuesday that AstraZeneca could not guarantee on-time deliveries to the EU because countries like the UK were filling out orders faster.. «Good start» also gave AstraZeneca in the United Kingdom more time to address the supply chain issues currently affecting EU supply, the CEO said.

«We also had similar problems in the UK supply chain. But the contract with the UK was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the UK, we had an additional three months to fix all the glitches we encountered. In Europe, we are three months behind in addressing these disruptions.», – he said.

EU officials declined to indicate the extent of the vaccine shortage. The shock came as they are still trying to assess Pfizer’s impact on slowing the supply of a vaccine developed with BioNTech while a manufacturing facility in Belgium is being modernized..

The double postponement has sparked strong reactions across the region, where governments are already under pressure from the slow rollout of the vaccine. A highly unusual public row with AstraZeneca now threatens to shatter relations between Brussels and one of its main vaccine suppliers.

EU officials threaten to tighten vaccine export controls, and Italy has warned it could take legal action. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen raised a scandal on Tuesday, stating that the block «means business».

«Europe has invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines to create a truly global common good. And now companies must fulfill their obligations. They must fulfill their obligations», – she said during a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

In an interview with La Repubblica and other major European newspapers, Sorio admitted that his company is facing problems at a large manufacturing facility in Europe. He said that the early phase of vaccine production is often «complicated», and company «mostly two months behind» from what I wanted.

«Wish I could do better? Of course. But, you know, if we deliver in February what we plan to deliver, this is not a small volume, ”Sorio said. – We plan to deliver millions of doses to Europe, this is a lot».

He also highlighted the fundamental differences in the agreements that the company has with the United Kingdom and the European Union..

«The contract with the UK was signed first. The UK, of course, said – you supply us first, and that’s fair enough, – he said. – Three months later, when the European Union wanted to receive supplies “more or less simultaneously” with the United Kingdom, AstraZeneca was unable to make this commitment».

«Our contract [with the European Union] is not a contractual obligation. This is the best effort. Basically we said that we will try our best, but we cannot guarantee that we will succeed, we are a little late», – explained the top manager.

The European Union admitted on Wednesday that it has signed a best effort deal with AstraZeneca. But a senior EU official said the bloc had already paid part of the € 336 million ($ 406 million) down payment to boost production, Kyriakides rejected the logic «first come – first served».

«We signed a preliminary purchase agreement for a product that did not exist at the time and which has not yet been approved. And we signed it precisely to ensure that the company builds up production facilities to produce the vaccine early on, so they can deliver a certain amount of doses on the day it is allowed.», – commented on the situation a high-ranking representative of the health sector of the European Union.

The European Union also said the doses produced at AstraZeneca’s factories in the United Kingdom should be used to fulfill its order, opening the door to a potential altercation with London..

«There is also no hierarchy of manufacturing plants specified in the preliminary purchasing agreement. Two are in the EU and two are in the UK», – said Kyriakides.

In a statement, AstraZeneca said it has built more than a dozen regional supply chains to manufacture its vaccine, partnering with more than 20 partners in more than 15 countries..

«Each supply chain has been developed with participation and investment from certain countries or international organizations based on supply agreements, including our agreement with the European Commission, the company said. – Because each supply chain has been customized to meet the needs of a specific agreement. The vaccine produced in any supply chain is targeted to the respective countries or regions and uses locally sourced whenever possible».

Ho-Yin Mac, Associate Professor at the Department of Management at Oxford Sa Business Schoolïd Business School, said delays in AstraZeneca vaccine production are a result of weaknesses in its supply chain.

«This is partly inevitable … Production disruptions such as high production issues reported by AstraZeneca are not uncommon, especially when manufacturers are trying to ramp up production quickly», – he said.

EU puts pressure on AstraZeneca over vaccine supply delays

EU vaccine efforts got a boost on Wednesday when French drug maker Sanofi said it would produce 125 million doses of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine for distribution within the block, with shipments starting in summer 2021..

But European governments are demanding responses in the event of delays, indicating that the success of their vaccination efforts depends on the private sector..

«On the one hand, we can only welcome the results of science, but on the other hand, they have a monopoly, and we are completely dependent, – said the Minister of Health of Belgium on Saturday. Frank Vandenbrook. – There may be production problems, but these uncertainties and announcements make it very difficult to organize the campaign».

Kyriakides said on Monday that the EU will now require «full transparency regarding the export of vaccines».

«In the future, all companies producing Covid-19 vaccines in the EU will have to provide early notification when they want to export vaccines to third countries. This will of course not affect humanitarian supplies.», – she tweeted.

German Minister of Health Jens Spahn said that the control measures are not aimed at «The EU was above all», but in order for Europe to get its fair share.

«In my opinion, it makes sense to have an export limit, that is, vaccines that leave the European Union are licensed so that we know what is being produced, what is leaving Europe, where it is going, so that there is a fair distribution», – he told the German TV channel ZDF.

Sorio said he understands the disappointment.

«Governments are under pressure. Everyone gets a little annoyed or emotional about these things. But I understand, because the Commission manages the process for the whole of Europe», – said the CEO.

«As soon as we can, we will help the EU», – he added.

Sorio also offered support for a strategy pioneered in the United Kingdom that could help accelerate vaccine introduction in the European Union..

To quickly vaccinate a larger population, the United Kingdom administers the first dose of Pfizer / BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccines to as many people as possible, and then administers the second dose for up to 12 weeks.

«I think the UK single dose strategy is absolutely the right way, at least for our vaccine.», – Sorio said, adding that a second dose is needed for long-term protection.

There are no definitive data from clinical trials on the effectiveness of only one injection of a two-dose vaccine.

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