Brussels, 27 January 2021 (dpa/MIA) – The showdown between pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the European Union about a drastic downsizing in planned deliveries of Covid-19 vaccine escalated on Wednesday.
After the company’s chief executive fended off EU allegations in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, the European Commission decried the explanations as unacceptable.
European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides dismissed AstraZeneca’s argument that the European Union had ordered its doses three months after Britain did, and could therefore not expect to receive the drug at the same time.
“We reject the logic of first come first serve. This may work in the neighbourhood butchers, but not in contracts,” Kyriakides said, explaining that no priority clause was included their contract.
AstraZeneca claimed that British production sites and chains were more efficient, and that low yields at a site in Belgium were to blame for delays to the 27-member bloc.
But for Kyriakides, the company had to fulfil its contract regardless: If more doses were produced in Britain, those should be used to fulfil obligations towards the EU, she said.
There was also nothing in the agreement about splitting up supply chains into two factories producing for Britain, and two for the EU, she said.
After confusion broke out on Wednesday whether a planned crisis meeting would take place, both sides eventually confirmed they were still on for Wednesday evening.
The European Commission, which inked a contract in August for up to 400 million doses of the Oxford University-developed drug, has been livid with the firm since it announced a major hold-up last week.
The EU executive branch said it had expected 80 million doses by the end of March, but was now only promised 31 million.
The British-Swedish firm’s chief executive Pascal Soriot appealed to the European public for understanding in an interview published late Tuesday, but stressed the firm is not legally tied to a certain timeline.
“It’s not a commitment we have to Europe,” Soriot said. Contractually speaking, he said, “we said we are going to make our best effort.”
The EU previously threatened legal action, but with the agreement’s terms kept strictly under wraps, it is unclear on what contractual basis this would happen.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is widely expected to recommend AstraZeneca’s jab for EU use on Friday – the third vaccine in the bloc’s arsenal against the deadly respiratory disease.
The 27 EU nations are lagging behind Britain and the United States with their mass inoculation campaign.
For the EU, “the target is to deliver 17 million doses by February,” Soriot told journalists in the interview, stressing that the vaccine was being produced for no profit.
The delays are caused by issues linked to the scaling-up of drug production at an EU site, according to Soriot – an explanation that has not satisfied EU officials so far.
“We’ve had also teething issues like this in the UK supply chain,” he said. “As for Europe, we are three months behind in fixing those glitches.”
EU capitals have also voiced their dissatisfaction with the company.
“AstraZeneca hasn’t done itself any favours,” one EU diplomat told dpa on condition of anonymity.
Choosing to reveal such serious problems just days before EU member states were expecting the first deliveries had been a communications error that had harmed everyone, the source said.
It remained unclear exactly what could emerge from Wednesday’s talks, with EU officials stressing the company had to be more transparent both in terms of the source of the delays as well as delivery schedules beyond March.
“They are just giving us a few quantities for February, and a few quantities for March. But then there is darkness,” the official said, explaining that the company was yet to indicate when it would catch up with the doses.
“We are not told what the real problem is,” the official said.