AstraZeneca vaccine row sets EU, UK on collision course
Both the European Union and former member Britain insisted the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company uphold contractual delivery promises to each of them - even as the company said there was not enough to go around.
"The 27 European Union member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments in our agreements," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Brussels.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he expected AstraZeneca to honor its commitment to deliver two million doses a week to the U.K. from its plant in north Wales, where a bomb scare paused production for a few hours on Jan. 27.
"All I can say is that we’re very confident in our supplies, we’re very confident in our contracts and we’re going ahead on that basis," Johnson told a news conference.
The row was triggered last Friday when AstraZeneca informed the EU that it could only supply a quarter of the vaccine doses it had promised for the first three months of this year.
That infuriated the European Commission, which is planning this week to add the AstraZeneca vaccine to two others it has already authorized - from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna - to help reach a goal of inoculating 70 percent of EU adults by the end of August.
The anger became incandescent when AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot on Tuesday gave an interview saying his company was prioritizing supplies to Britain, which signed its contract three months before the EU did, and was required only to make a "best effort" to supply the bloc.
Kyriakides said this claim was "neither correct nor is it acceptable".
"We reject the logic of first-come, first-served. That may work at the neighborhood butcher’s but not in contracts, and not in our advanced purchase agreements," she said.
The tensions eased slightly after Soriot spoke with the EU’s vaccines team on Jan. 27 night, with both sides saying the meeting had been "constructive".
"We have committed to even closer coordination to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring this vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic," an AstraZeneca spokesman said.
Kyriakides complained however of a "continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule", saying in a tweet: "The EU remains united and firm contractual obligations must be met."
Earlier on Jan. 27 she had noted that AstraZeneca had four operating vaccine plants in Europe - two in Britain and two in the EU - and the contract made no distinction between them in terms of the contractual volumes to be supplied.
EU officials briefing journalists on condition of anonymity stressed the bloc had allocated 336 million euros ($406 million) to AstraZeneca to permit it to expand production.
Explanations from the company for the delay had varied and the main one, talking about a "yield problem" in one of the EU-based plants, was unsatisfactory, the officials said.
"We are not told what the real problem is," one of the officials said. As AstraZeneca’s other plants - notably in the U.K. - were unaffected, "their story is slightly inconsistent".
Should AstraZeneca start diverting vaccine supply from the two U.K. plants, that could jeopardise Johnson’s commitment to have 15 million Britons vaccinated by mid-February.
Already, thanks mainly to the AstraZeneca jab, Britain is one of the leading countries for the speed of its vaccination rollout - doing so at five times the rate of EU member states collectively.
A sudden slowdown in those doses would be dramatic, especially as Britain has suffered the highest death toll from COVID-19 of any European country and Johnson is counting on the vaccinations to stem deaths.
Tensions between the EU and Britain remain high in the wake of Brexit, with British traders and consumers suffering as they cope with higher costs and bureaucracy outside of the European single market.