Last week, the European Union’s vaccine rollout was threatened anew after AstraZeneca announced it would supply significantly fewer vaccine doses than initially planned. Facing delays and new virus mutations, the bloc is struggling to reach its goal of vaccinating 70% of its inhabitants by September.
On Jan. 22, the Anglo-Swedish company warned EU states to expect a shortfall of its coronavirus vaccine deliveries. Instead of supplying 100 million doses of the jab in the first quarter of 2021, AstraZeneca said that the “initial volumes” would “be lower than originally planned.” Although the company’s spokesman declined to specify the size of the shortfall, a senior EU official told Reuters that the bloc should expect a 60% reduction to 31 million of approximately 80 million doses that the EU states had anticipated to receive in February and March. For Austria, this means only receiving around 340,000, instead of 650,000, vaccine doses in February, said Health Minister Rudolf Anschober in a ZIB II interview.
The company, which partnered with Oxford University to produce its vaccine, has attributed this shortfall to “reduced yields at a manufacturing site within [its] European supply chain.” According to The Wall Street Journal, AstraZeneca’s plant, located in Belgium and owned by Novasep Holding SAS, is producing a third of the company’s initial projections.
This supply cut is an especially hard blow to the EU. Back in August, the bloc had made a commitment to AstraZeneca, with whom the bloc reached its first COVID-19 vaccine deal. The EU agreed to purchase at least 300 million and 100 million additional doses if proven safe and effective from the company, for which it received an up-front payment of 336 million euros.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for one, is furious. “Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines,” she told this year’s virtual World Economic Forum on Tuesday, January 26. “And now, the companies must deliver. They must honor their obligations.”
In addition, BioNTech and Pfizer, currently the EU’s largest corona vaccine supplier, announced a similar delay just last week, causing disarray in the union. When hearing about the latest supply issues with AstraZeneca, the “EU Commission and Member States expressed deep dissatisfaction,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides wrote on Twitter. European Council Chief Charles Michel has even threatened to take the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company to court. “We can use all the legal means at our disposal for this,” Michel told Europe 1. “The EU intends to enforce the contracts signed by the pharmaceutical industry,” he added.
But complicating the matter even further: the EU hasn’t approved the AstraZeneca jab yet. Although the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to make a final decision by the end of this week, Europe’s slow action may have contributed to this mishap. Britain granted emergency authorization to the vaccine on Dec. 30, with India following suit earlier this month. In doing so, the U.K. worked with the company directly to establish and improve the U.K. supply chain, and as reported by the Journal, ship doses to the U.K, produced with European production capacity that was not needed at the time.
In a Jan. 25 meeting with the drug maker’s executives, angered European leaders demanded further clarification and transparency on the export of vaccines from the company. In an attempt to make concessions, AstraZeneca reportedly offered to start deliveries earlier on Feb. 7, rather than the initially planned date, Feb. 15. One EU official suggested that the pharmaceutical company said it would increase its supply goals for next month to make up for the cuts it announced last week.
However, in a statement, Kyriakides said, “The answers of the company … have not been satisfactory so far.” The EU has laid down a new condition, requiring manufacturers to notify the union of COVID-19 vaccine exports.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn recently proposed such a measure to ensure greater accountability. “It would be a good idea if companies had to obtain a license to exporting vaccines so that we could monitor which vaccines leave the EU after having been produced or bottled in Europe,” Spahn told Deutsche Welle. “After all, we have advanced several hundred million euros in almost all of the contracts that the EU has signed, so that production capacity could be expanded.”
In an exclusive interview with la Repubblica, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot stated that the company is working on a non-profit basis and aims to “treat Europe as best as it can.” However, he clarified that the U.K. had signed a contract with the company three months earlier, which gave the country a “head start.” The manufacturer could tweak the production process and establish “good productivity.”
However, the CEO stressed that the company “didn’t commit with the EU.” Instead, AstraZeneca told the union that it would make its “best effort.”
“Europe at the time wanted to be supplied more or less at the same time as the UK,” Soriot said, “even though the contract was signed three months later.” Once approved, AstraZeneca would ship at least three million vaccine doses to Europe “immediately,” he said, followed by two more shipments in February.
In response, the European Commission accused AstraZeneca of violating a “binding commitment.” At a follow-up meeting with the pharmaceutical company on Wednesday, Kyriakides stated AstraZeneca ought to redirect vaccines from its U.K. facilities. The EU has reportedly also pushed the pharmaceutical company to release its contract.
In the past few months, the EU has increasingly come under scrutiny for its slow vaccine rollout. More specifically, the EMA’s bureaucratic process has been sluggish, threatening to undermine the bloc’s battle against the pandemic. According to the Associated Press, the agency’s evaluation is “roughly comparable” to that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Yet, in an interview with Euronews, Professor Stephen Evans, a former independent expert member for the agency, said that the vaccine needs to be cleared by the representatives of each EU member state and the European Commission. It is “probably fair to say” that administrative lags are causing this long wait, Evans said.
As more and more cases of the highly contagious virus mutations are being confirmed across the continent, European leaders are growing increasingly restless. In a video summit convened by Michel last week, officials called to expedite the authorization process. For example, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen urged EU officials to consider delivering AstraZeneca doses before the EMA authorizes the vaccine. French President Emmanuel Macron echoed this thought, proposing to accelerate distribution through “the finalization of pre-orders,” according to an Élysée Palace official.
So far, leaders are still weighing solidarity, except for Hungary, who has bypassed the EU, brokering a deal with Russia and negotiating with China for their respective vaccines. In a statement, Michel reassured, “All possible means will be examined to ensure rapid supply, including early distribution to avoid delays.”
Although unlikely at the current pace, whether the EU can reach its “ambitious” goal of vaccinating 70% of adults by the end of summer is still an open question.