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Amid shortfall, European Commission demands to know who AztraZeneca has delivered vaccine doses to

Last week the company said initial supplies to Europe will be lower than expected.

LAST UPDATE | 25 Jan 2021

EUROPEAN UNION OFFICIALS have called a second meeting with executives from AstraZeneca this evening after it said the pharmaceutical company had not provided ‘satisfactory’ answers on why it will not meet its vaccine delivery schedule.

The company warned last week that supplies of its coronavirus vaccine to Europe will be lower than originally anticipated, stating that the issue was down to reduced production at a manufacturing site. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to issue its decision on authorisation of the vaccine at the end of this week.

Speaking at a briefing this afternoon, Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said the announcement from AstraZeneca last week had been ‘surprising’.

“The European Union has pre-financed the development of the vaccine and its production and wants to see the return,” she said.

“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.”

Kyriakides said these questions were discussed during a meeting today with the company. 

“The answers of the company, have not been satisfactory so far and that’s why a second meeting is scheduled for tonight,” she said.

“The European Union wants the ordered and pre-financed doses to be delivered as soon as possible.

And we want our contract to be fully fulfilled. In addition, the Commission has today proposed to the 27 member states in the steering board that an export transparency mechanism will be put in place as soon as possible.

Kyriakides said the EU has supported the rapid development and production of several vaccines against the coronavirus with a total of €2.7 billion spent.

“We want clarity on transactions and full transparency concerning the export of vaccines from the EU,” she said.

“In the future, all companies producing vaccines against Covid-19 in the EU will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries. Humanitarian deliveries are, of course, not affected by this. The European Union will take any action required to protect its citizens and rights.”

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen spoke to the CEO of the pharmaceutical firm this morning, a spokesperson said.

“She made it clear that she expects AstraZeneca to deliver on the contractual arrangement foreseen in the Advance Purchase Agreement,” he said, adding that she had reminded the company that the EU has invested “significant amounts” in the company upfront to ensure production could be ramped up. 

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” he said. 

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is considered key to the global vaccination effort because it is cheaper to produce and can be stored at fridge temperature.

‘Reduced yields’

AstraZeneca said in a statement last week that if EU approval is granted, the “initial volumes will be lower than anticipated,” although the start would not be delayed.

The company blamed “reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” without giving details.

It said it would in any case supply the EU with “millions of doses” while ramping up production in February and March. The company has agreed to supply up to 400 million doses to the EU.

On Friday Reuters reported that the company told EU officials it would cut deliveries of its Covid-19 vaccine to the bloc by 60% in the first quarter due to the production issues. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said it will “disrupt our plan”, though the government and health authorities have not given further detail on how it will impact on our supplies. 

Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober called it “very, very bad news” and said his country would receive only slightly more than half the 650,000 AstraZeneca doses it had expected in February.

Lithuania said it was expecting an 80% reduction in AstraZeneca doses in the first quarter.

Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, speaking on public television, said the government had a contract with AstraZeneca for 1.5 million vaccine doses in the first quarter.

“AstraZeneca says it will be half, instead of 1.5 million there will be 650,000,” he said. 

Action by EU officials

As part of the Advance Purchase Agreement the EU has with AstraZeneca, funds were provided to reserve production capacity and for advance production. European officials are likely to take a heavy-handed approach to any potential delays in the delivery of supplies.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the weekend said the government was considering legal action against AstraZeneca’s “unacceptable” announcement.

“If the 60% reduction in doses that will be distributed in the first quarter should be confirmed, that would mean that 3.4 million doses would be delivered to Italy instead of eight million doses,” he said.

European Council President Charles Michel yesterday told Europe 1 that the EU will ensure that pharmaceutical companies respect the contracts they have signed.

“We can use all the legal means at our disposal for this,” he added. 

Pfizer also recently announced deliveries would be temporarily scaled back as it completes work at its Belgian plant to increase its capacity. 

“We banged our fists on the table, which made it possible to reduce the delay,” Michel said.

Following a call with President von der Leyen, Pfizer  said it would return its original delivery schedule from this week. 

- With reporting from AFP.

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