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AstraZeneca says vaccine delivery talks with EU will go ahead, contradicting earlier claims

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said it’s ‘not selling EU doses to other countries’.

Image: Shutterstock/Juan Roballo

Updated Jan 27th 2021, 12:05 PM

PHARMACEUTICAL FIRM ASTRAZENECA has said it has not pulled out of vaccine talks with the European Union and plans to meet EU officials later today in Brussels.

The comments came after EU officials said earlier that the company had pulled out of the meeting to discuss delayed vaccine commitments to the 27-nation bloc. The talks were due to be the third in as many days.

The public dispute between AstraZeneca and the EU has raised concerns about vaccine nationalism, as countries desperate to end the pandemic compete to make sure they obtain as many of the precious vaccine shots as possible.

The latest disagreement between the two sides came after AstraZeneca rejected the EU’s accusation that the company had failed to honour its commitments for the delivery of the coronavirus vaccine.

The company says figures in its contract with the EU were targets that could not be met because of problems in rapidly expanding production capacity.

AstraZeneca said in a statement that it “understands and shares in the frustration that initial supply volumes of our vaccine delivered to the European Union will be lower than forecast”.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot made the comments in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica following days of criticism from EU leaders furious about the news that initial shipments from AstraZeneca would be lower than anticipated.

The drugmaker said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from 80 million due to reduced yield in the manufacturing process.

Our contract is not a contractual commitment,” Soriot said. “It’s a best effort. Basically, we said we’re going to try our best, but we can’t guarantee we’re going to succeed. In fact, getting there, we are a little bit delayed.”

On Monday, the EU threatened to impose tight export controls within days on Covid-19 vaccines made in the bloc.

The EU, which has 450 million citizens and the economic and political clout of the world’s biggest trading bloc, is lagging badly behind countries such as Israel and Britain in rolling out coronavirus vaccine shots for its healthcare workers and most vulnerable people.

That is despite having more than 400,000 confirmed virus deaths since the pandemic began.

The shortfall of planned deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine comes at the same time as a slowdown in the distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech shots, as that company upgrades production facilities at a plant in Belgium.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to get medical approval in the bloc on Friday.

Reduced yields  

The British-Swedish drugs firm admitted last week that it would not meet its contractual delivery commitments to the EU because of “reduced yields” in its European supply chain.

That prompted European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides to announce that the EU plans to start tracking vaccine shipments exported to non-member countries – a sign of growing distrust.

“The European Union wants to know exactly which doses have been produced where by AstraZeneca so far, and if or to whom they have been delivered,” she said Monday.

AstraZeneca’s CEO Pascal Soriot sought to calm the situation yesterday, acknowledging that European governments were growing “aggravated or emotional” due to repeated stumbling blocks in their vaccine rollouts.

“Our team is working 24/7 to fix the very much issues of production of the vaccine itself,” he told the LENA European newspaper alliance.

He stressed: “We’re certainly not taking vaccines away from the Europeans to sell it somewhere else at the profit.”

The company, which teamed up with Oxford University to develop its vaccine, has pledged not to make a profit on sales of the jab during the pandemic.

The company is working with Oxford to develop a vaccine that specifically targets a more infectious South African strain of Covid-19, Soriot said. 

UK ‘had time to fix glitches’

Europe’s AstraZeneca woes came a week after US group Pfizer said it was also cutting early delivery volumes of its vaccine produced with German firm BioNTech.

Those two announcements have risked up-ending the EU’s vaccination programmes while heaping pressure on the European Commission, which took on the task of negotiating vaccine orders on behalf of all 27 member states. 

Soriot noted that recently-departed EU member Britain – which said Tuesday it was confident of receiving all its vaccine doses – had started its rollout three months earlier.

“So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced,” he said.

Europe is on track to receive 17% of AstraZeneca’s global production in February “for a population that is 5 percent of the world population”, he noted.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper than that produced by rivals such as Moderna and Pfizer, and is also easier to stock since it does not need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures. 

If the EMA agrees to grant a conditional marketing authorisation to the Astrazeneca vaccine this Friday, it paves the way for its rollout in Ireland. However, that rollout here is set to be lower than initially expected due to the company’s unexpected delay in delivering millions of doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to EU member states.  

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Sanofi 

Meanwhile, French drug maker Sanofi said it will help manufacture 125 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by its rivals Pfizer and BioNTech, while its own vaccine candidate faces delays.

Germany-based BioNTech will initially produce the vaccines at Sanofi facilities in Frankfurt, starting in the summer, according to a Sanofi statement. The company did not reveal financial details of the agreement.

The French government has been pressing Sanofi to use its facilities to help make vaccines from its rivals, given high demand and problems with supplies of the few vaccines that are already available.

We are very conscious that the earlier vaccine doses are available, the more lives can potentially be saved,” Sanofi chief executive Paul Hudson said.

Sanofi and British partner GlaxoSmithKline will start a new phase two trial of their Covid-19 vaccine next month, Sanofi said.

The two companies said last month that their vaccine will not be ready until late 2021 because its effectiveness in older people needs to be improved.

- With reporting from PA

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