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28th Feb 2021

Coronavirus

EU-AstraZeneca row flares up after vaccines shortfall

  • For the contract with AstraZeneca, the European Commission has allocated €336m - although not all of it has been paid yet (Photo: Cheshire East Council)

The EU's standoff with vaccine-manufacturer AstraZeneca has intensified, after the company's CEO said the contract signed with the European Commission is on a "best-effort" basis - meaning that there is no legal obligation to fulfil the order set up by the EU for the first quarter.

In response, the EU is urging AstraZeneca to make their vaccine contract public in order to "open the debate," arguing that confidentiality clauses of the contract forbid them to talk about the issues in detail.

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"Pharmaceutical companies and vaccine developers have moral, societal and contractual responsibilities which they need to uphold. We lost people every day, these are not statistics, are people with families," said EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides on Wednesday (27 January).

"The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a 'best-effort agreement' is neither correct nor it is acceptable," she added.

Another layer of tension was added to the row when a commission spokesperson said on Wednesday that AstraZeneca had pulled out of a meeting scheduled later that day - at the same time that the company was denying the statement.

This follows several days of back and forth, with phone calls and meetings, previously described by Kyriakides as unsatisfactory due to the "the lack of clarity" over delayed deliveries.

The UK first?

Last week, AstraZeneca suddenly announced that the number of initial doses for member states ordered for the first quarter of 2021 would be lower due to "reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain".

However, in an interview published on Tuesday night, the company's CEO Pascal Soriot said that the factories of the UK were producing a much higher yield because they signed an agreement much earlier.

"We have had also teething issues in the UK supply chain …[but] with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced," Soriot said.

However, according to the commission, the contract with AstraZeneca foresees manufacturing in four separate plants in Europe - two in the UK, one in Belgium and one in Germany.

"The UK factories are part of our advanced purchase agreement, this is why they [AstraZeneca] have to deliver," Kyriakides said, referring to the fact that the EU expects to receive doses produced in such plants.

"In our contract, it is not specified that any country, [including] the UK, is prioritised because it has signed an earlier agreement," she added.

"First-come, first-served approach may work at neighbourhood butcher but not in contracts," she also said.

Moreover, EU officials also said that differentiating the UK and EU supply chains "does not correspond to what is in our contract".

The vaccine jointly developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca is expected to be approved on Friday (29 January) by the European Medicine Agency.

'Customs data do not lie'

The commission has so far refused to clarify how significant this shortfall would be, but Reuters has reported that deliveries would be cut to 31 million doses - a reduction of 60 percent.

"It is unacceptable that a three digits figure [ie hundreds of millions] is reduced to a quarter," a commission official said.

For the contract with AstraZeneca, the European Commission has allocated €336m - although part of the funding has not been paid yet.

Meanwhile, the commission has proposed setting up an "export transparency mechanism" which would require companies, with whom the EU has signed agreements, to inform in advance about any international shipments - a move perceived as a sign of distrust towards the pharmaceutical companies.

"The customs data do not lie. Which company? Which vaccine? I do not know, but I can see that vaccines from Europe were shipped to many countries," an EU official said.

The proposal for this transparency mechanism is expected to be unveiled on Friday.

EU to control vaccine exports in row over delays

The European Commission wants to control exports of coronavirus vaccines to outside the bloc, after pharmaceutical firms said EU countries will receive fewer jabs than they ordered due to alleged production problems.

EU leaders to discuss vaccine certificates

While some member states hope vaccine certificates could revive tourism, EU officials point out that it is not clear if vaccinated people can still carry the virus and infect others.

Analysis

The EU's vaccine strategy - the key points

As the EU Commission gets entangled in a dispute with one of the vaccine producers and gets heat for the perceived slow roll-out of the vaccines, we take a look at what the EU has done and not done.

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