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EU demands answers over vaccine delays

January 25, 2021

The bloc's heath commissioner has said AstraZeneca's delay in delivering COVID-19 vaccines is "not acceptable." The EU paid €336 million for guaranteed orders and is angry the company is delivering elsewhere.

Vials of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine
The EU expects to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine on January 29Image: Leon Neal/Getty Images

EU officials called a meeting with AstraZeneca executives on Monday to seek clarification after the drugmaker announced it would fall far short of its COVID-19 vaccine delivery obligations to the bloc. 

"We want our contract to be fully fulfilled," said Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, adding that the company's answers to "important questions" about delays to agreed vaccine deliveries had "not been satisfactory."

 "This new schedule is not acceptable to the European Union," she said.

EU officials have claimed the contractual right to access company accounts to verify production and delivery numbers. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is reported to have spoken with AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot before Monday's meeting to remind him of his company's commitments.

A spokesperson for the company said Soriot assured von der Leyen that AstraZeneca was doing all it could to deliver the vaccine.

Cash up front

Last August, the EU made an upfront payment of €336 million ($409 million) to the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company — the bloc's first COVID-19 vaccine deal — in order to expand production and secure 300 million doses of the drug developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

EU officials speaking with Reuters news agency last week said the bloc could expect a 61% cut to its order, meaning it may only receive as few as 31 million doses. AstraZeneca has said "initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our EU supply chain."

'Flimsy justification' for vaccine delay

The site is reported to be a Belgian viral vectors factory operated by partner company Novasep. The production of viral vectors is complex and time consuming. Stable, high-yield production of the genetically modified cells used in the vaccine-making process requires mastering a great number of variables.

Still, EU parliamentarian Peter Liese of Germany's Christian Democratic Union has said that is no excuse for the delay. "The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent," he said.

An EU official close to the Monday meeting said the bloc did not have high expectations. The EU has raised the possibility of financial penalties in light of the scale of the shortfall, though the official commenting said it was still too soon for that.

Registering deliveries to protect investment

The mention of financial penalties, as well as a new EU move requiring drugmakers to preregister all vaccine exports, suggests the bloc is worried that doses it paid for may be diverted to other parts of the world. 

"AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October, and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK, without delay," said Liese.

On Monday, it became clear that Europe is not the only place where the company is failing its obligations. Australia and Thailand both announced estimated delivery shortfalls in the coming months.

In late December, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its vaccine deliveries to the EU would be delayed by up to a month, only to immediately retract the statement and say the delays would be no longer than a week.

The EU expects to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine on January 29, with the first deliveries scheduled for February 15.  

js/nm (AFP, Reuters)