BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union failed to make a breakthrough in crisis talks with AstraZeneca on Wednesday and demanded the drugmaker spell out how it would supply the bloc with reserved doses of COVID-19 vaccine from plants in Europe and Britain.
The EU is making more comprehensive checks on vaccines before approval, which means a slower rollout of shots than former EU member Britain and growing public frustration.
The issue has been exacerbated by Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca and Pfizer of the United States both announcing delivery hold-ups in recent weeks.
“We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule and request a clear plan from AstraZeneca for the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved for Q1,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in a tweet.
“We will work with the company to find solutions and deliver vaccines rapidly for EU citizens,” she said, after AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot addressed a vaccine body made up of representatives from the EU’s 27 members.
AstraZeneca said in a statement it had a constructive conversation with the EU about the complexities of scaling up production and had committed to closer coordination on working out deliveries in the coming months.
Earlier, Kyriakides told a news conference that two of the four factories from which AstraZeneca has committed to providing vaccines to the EU are in Britain.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would have been a “great pity” if the United Kingdom had stayed in the European Union’s vaccine programme rather than set up its own plan.
“I do think that we’ve been able to do things differently, and better, in some ways,” he said in parliament.
AstraZeneca, which partnered with Britain’s Oxford University to develop its vaccine, said last week it would cut supplies to the EU in the first quarter, with an EU official saying that meant the EU would receive 31 million doses in the period, or 60% less than initially agreed, due to production issues at a Belgian factory.
The EU has been pushing the company for a week to revise these cuts, but it is unclear how it can force delivery of the agreed amounts.
Soriot told newspapers on Tuesday the EU contract was based on a best-effort clause and did not commit the company to a specific timetable for deliveries.
He said that vaccines meant for the EU were produced in four plants in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
But EU Commission officials said on Wednesday that the contract stipulated that the company had also committed to providing vaccines from two factories in Britain.
They added the firm had not provided sufficient explanations on why doses could not be shipped from stocks at fully functioning factories.
Reuters on Tuesday exclusively reported that EU’s calls to reroute doses from Britain had not been answered by AstraZeneca.
As an example of how the glitches are biting, delays in deliveries are forcing health authorities in Spain’s wealthiest regions of Madrid and Catalonia to restrict inoculations even as a third wave of contagion rages, officials said.
Adding to the confusion, a factory in Wales that produces AstraZeneca’s vaccine was partially evacuated on Wednesday after it received a suspicious package and police said a bomb disposal unit was dealing with the incident.
MEETING OR NO MEETING?
The EU has also threatened to monitor future exports of COVID-19 vaccines, although the EU trade commissioner ruled out any export bans.
Fraught relations showed up in confusion about the timing of a meeting between the EU and AstraZeneca and whether the company would even attend.
The EU contract with AstraZeneca is an advance purchase agreement for the supply of at least 300 million doses provided the vaccine is approved as safe and effective, with doses delivered in stages. It is expected to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Friday.
Officials added that the best-effort clause was standard in contracts with manufacturers of products in development. One EU official said best effort meant the company had to show an “overall” effort to develop and deliver vaccines.
AstraZeneca said on Wednesday that supply chains were developed with input from specific countries or international organisations and that each supply chain was dedicated to the relevant countries or regions, making use of local manufacturing where possible.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Ludwig Burger; Additional reporting by Francois Murphy, Kate Kelland, Sabine Siebold and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Nick Macfie, Edmund Blair and Aurora Ellis)