The European Commission said on Monday that it was taking the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to court for breach of contract after a number of delays in supplying COVID-19 vaccines to the bloc.
"The commission has started last Friday a legal action against AstraZeneca," a spokesperson told a news conference, adding that all 27 EU states backed the move.
"Some terms of the contract have not been respected, and the company has not been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure timely delivery of doses," the spokesperson said.
But one EU diplomat warned that move could have "a chilling effect" on investment in Europe's drug industry in the future.
"Ultimately, a court case is not going to speed up getting jabs into arms," said one ambassador with close ties to Paris and Berlin, adding the legal challenge "could take years."
What is the EU's stance on AstraZeneca?
Germany, France and Hungary were among EU states that were initially reticent to sue the company, mostly on the grounds that the move might not speed up deliveries, diplomats said, but eventually they supported it.
The announcement comes as commission president Ursula von der Leyen suggested earlier this month to never do business again with AstraZeneca for its future vaccination campaigns.
Former German defense minister von der Leyen said the EU would only buy vaccines using mRNA technology — such as Pfizer and Moderna — for the next round of jabbing drives.
"We need to focus on technologies that have proven their worth — mRNA vaccines are a clear case in point," she said.
Another senior EU source said: "It would be better to write off AstraZeneca altogether for now and build a vaccine portfolio around other EU-approved jabs."
What complaints is AstraZeneca facing?
When signing the contract with the EU, AstraZeneca committed to make its "best reasonable efforts" to deliver 180 million vaccine doses to the bloc in the second quarter of this year, making up a total of 300 million in the period from December to June. Last month, however, AstraZeneca said it would aim to deliver only one-third of that.
Brussels has been particularly angered by the fact that that the supply of AstraZeneca shots to the United Kingdom remained unaffected amid all production hiccups claimed by the company, although purchase contracts from the bloc and Britain both dated from August 2020.
The EU has repeatedly clashed with the firm in recent months and has been trying to compensate delivery shortfalls by ordering more from other manufacturers. Recently, the bloc decided not to exercise its options for another 300 million doses from AstraZeneca amid evidence of very rare blood clot side effects.
What does AstraZeneca say?
The vaccine producer on Monday said that there was no legal foundation to the lawsuit against it and that it regretted the decision by the European Commission.
"AstraZeneca has fully complied with the Advance Purchase Agreement with the European Commission and will strongly defend itself in court. We believe any litigation is without merit, and we welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible," the company said in a statement.
At the same time, the company said it was "looking forward" to working with the Commission on vaccinating as many people as possible.
It said it would be delivering almost 50 million doses to European countries by the end of April, in keeping with its March forecast.
tj/dj (AFP, Reuters)