The European Union has warned pharmaceutical giants that have developed coronavirus vaccines with EU aid that it must get its shots on schedule, a day after the bloc threatened to impose export controls on vaccines produced within its borders.
The vaccination roll-out in the world’s biggest trading bloc, which has 450 million citizens, is lagging behind countries like Israel and Britain, despite having more than 400,000 confirmed virus deaths since the pandemic began.
“Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines. To create a truly global common good,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum on Tuesday.
“And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations,” the head of the EU executive added.
The hardening of its position came days after it accused AstraZeneca of failing to guarantee the delivery of coronavirus vaccines without a valid explanation. It also had expressed displeasure over vaccine delivery delays from Pfizer-BioNTech.
The Pfizer vaccine is already being rolled out in the EU, and the AstraZeneca shot is expected to be approved this week.
AstraZeneca, which developed its vaccine with Oxford University, said last Friday it would cut supplies to the EU in the first quarter of this year, a move that a senior EU official said meant a 60 percent reduction to 31 million doses for the bloc.
The company said initial deliveries to the EU would fall short of the targeted volumes because of a production glitch.
US drugmaker Pfizer said there would be a temporary effect on shipments of its vaccine in late January to early February.
EU member states could take AstraZeneca to court for breach of supply contracts if it did not honour its schedule, Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister Edgars Rinkevics said.
“The possibility should be evaluated, and it should be coordinated among the EU countries,” the minister told the news agency Reuters, via a spokesman.
The European Commission will finalise a proposal by the end of the week to require pharmaceutical firms to register their vaccine exports from the EU, and says it has no plans to impose an export ban.
Health minister Matt Hancock said Britain, which has left the EU, would be able to work with the bloc to ensure there is no disruption, and that rejecting vaccine nationalism and protectionism was important.
“I’m sure that we can work with the EU to ensure that, whilst transparency is welcome … no blockers are put in place,” he told an event hosted by the Chatham House think-tank, adding he had spoken to the chief executives of Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
“… But I would urge all international partners in fact to be collaborative and working closely together, and I think protectionism is not the right approach in the middle of a pandemic,” Hancock said.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described unequal access to vaccines last week as a “catastrophic moral failure”, and urged countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world.
Separately on Tuesday, AstraZeneca denounced report in German media questioning whether its coronavirus vaccine was maximally effective when used on the elderly.
The claims were “completely incorrect,” it said, highlighting approval from Britain’s medicine regulator and support its vaccine body.
One of the reports in the German business daily newspaper Handelsblatt cited sources within the German federal government stating that the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine among people older than 65 stood at eight percent.
The German Health Ministry said it looked as though the media report may have mixed up some figures.