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Explainer: What's happening in the row between the EU and AstraZeneca?

The global competition for Covid-19 vaccines is putting the EU and Britain on a post-Brexit collision course.

Image: PA

THE EU IS currently demanding that pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca make up delays of its Covid-19 vaccine by supplying doses from its UK factories.

Both the European Union and former member Britain insisted the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company uphold contractual delivery promises to each of them – even as the company said there was not enough to go around.

“The 27 European Union member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments in our agreements,” EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Brussels.

In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he expected AstraZeneca to honour its commitment to deliver two million doses a week to the UK from its plant in north Wales, where a bomb scare paused production for a few hours yesterday.

“All I can say is that we’re very confident in our supplies, we’re very confident in our contracts and we’re going ahead on that basis,” Johnson told a news conference.

Tensions between the EU and Britain remain high in the wake of Brexit, with British traders and consumers suffering as they cope with higher costs and bureaucracy outside of the European single market. But how did the bloc and Britain set itself on a post-Brexit collision course over a vaccine? 

Contract tracing 

The row was triggered last Friday when AstraZeneca informed the EU that it could only supply a quarter of the vaccine doses it had promised for the first three months of this year. Ever since, EU officials have been determined to hold the pharmaceutical company to its contract,  the text of which has been confidential up until this point. 

The delay infuriated the European Commission, which is planning this week to add the AstraZeneca vaccine to two others it has already authorised – from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna – to help reach a goal of inoculating 70% of EU adults by the end of August.

Tension escalated when AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot on Tuesday gave an interview saying his company was prioritising supplies to Britain, which signed its contract three months before the EU did, and was required only to make a “best-effort” to supply the bloc.

“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.”

EU health commissioner Kyriakides said this claim was “neither correct nor is it acceptable”.

“We reject the logic of first-come, first-served. That may work at the neighbourhood butcher’s but not in contracts, and not in our advanced purchase agreements,” she said.

The tensions eased slightly after Soriot spoke with the EU’s vaccines team last night, with both sides saying the meeting had been “constructive”.

“We have committed to even closer coordination to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring this vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic,” an AstraZeneca spokesman said.

Despite this progress, Kyriakides complained afterwards of a “continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule”, saying in a tweet: “The EU remains united and firm contractual obligations must be met.”

Earlier yesterday she had noted that AstraZeneca had four operating vaccine plants in Europe – two in Britain and two in the EU – and the contract made no distinction between them in terms of the contractual volumes to be supplied.

EU officials briefing journalists on condition of anonymity stressed the bloc had allocated €336 million to AstraZeneca to permit it to expand production.

Explanations from the company for the delay had varied and the main one, talking about a “yield problem” in one of the EU-based plants, was unsatisfactory, the officials said.

“We are not told what the real problem is,” one of the officials said. As AstraZeneca’s other plants – notably in the UK – were unaffected, “their story is slightly inconsistent”.

Throwing jabs  

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 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.

Should AstraZeneca start diverting vaccine supply from the two UK plants, that could jeopardise Johnson’s commitment to have 15 million Britons vaccinated by mid-February.

Already, thanks mainly to the AstraZeneca jab, Britain is one of the leading countries for the speed of its vaccination rollout – doing so at five times the rate of EU member states collectively.

A sudden slowdown in those doses would be dramatic, especially as Britain has suffered the highest death toll from Covid-19 of any European country and Johnson is counting on the vaccinations to stem deaths.

UK Minister Michael Gove said this morning that there would be no interruption to UK vaccine supplies from AstraZeneca after the EU demanded doses from ‘British plants’.

Pressed on whether the government would allow vaccines to go to the EU, he said: “No, the critical thing is we must make sure that the schedule that has been agreed and on which our vaccination programme has been based and planned goes ahead.

“It is the case that the supplies that have been planned, paid for and scheduled should continue, absolutely. There will be no interruption to that.”

In response, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides rejected the logic of first come first served and said the contract signed with AstraZeneca, which worked with Oxford University on its vaccine, contains two factories in the UK.

“There is no hierarchy of the factories,” she said.

“You are aware in the contracts there are four factories listed but it does not differentiate between the UK and Europe.

“The UK factories are part of our advance purchase agreements and that is why they have to deliver,” she added.

The EU says it has invested hundreds of millions of euros in helping the drugmaker boost its production capacity but Soriot said that the UK has done the same for manufacturing in Britain, so the EU will have to wait its turn.

The state of play has fuelled growing concerns that bilateral deals between wealthier governments and coronavirus vaccine manufacturers could hike prices and limit supply in some regions.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday accused rich countries of bulk-buying the vaccines and hoarding them to the detriment of others.

Addressing the all-virtual 2021 World Economic Forum, Ramaphosa said low- and middle-income countries were being sidelined by wealthier nations able to acquire “up to four times what their population needs”.

The WHO and its official vaccine coalition Gavi have set up a mechanism to distribute vaccines to poorer countries, but not a single dose has yet been administered.

The programme is lacking the billions of dollars needed to achieve the goal of providing doses to 20 percent of the population of target countries by the end of the year.

“Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said previously.

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“It’s in every country’s best interest. We sink or we swim together.”

What does all this mean for Ireland? 

As part of the vaccine rollout plan, Ireland signed up to six advance purchase agreements – with Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Jansen, Sanofi and CureVac. Around 3.3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were ordered.

If the EMA agrees to grant conditional marketing authorisation to the AstraZeneca vaccine this Friday, it paves the way for its rollout in Ireland.  But 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.  

However, if approved tomorrow, Ireland will receive a supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine “within the expected range” for February.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly acknowledged that delivery of the vaccine in March is set to be “considerably lower than what was originally stated by the company” and has rowed back on commitments to have the entire country vaccinated by September. 

“I said September — September is absolutely still the aspiration. It’s not a promise,” he said on Today With Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1.

“If the vaccines come through that we have advanced purchased and if they come in on schedule, then it is reasonable to think that by September every adult could be vaccinated, but with all of those very serious caveats,” he said. 

Donnelly told the Dáil today that as of last night, AstraZeneca was still unable to state how many doses it might be shipping from mid-March.

Ireland was due to get 600,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in the first quarter of the year. This could fall to half that number in the first quarter, going by reports of the confidential deal.

No EU member state yet knows how many AstraZeneca doses it will receive this quarter, Donnelly said.

- With reporting from AFP

About the author:

Adam Daly

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