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The European Union and AstraZeneca are engaged in a bitter row over the United Kingdom-based pharmaceutical giant’s supply of coronavirus vaccines to the bloc.
The dispute began last week when AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company, said it would cut supplies to the EU in the first quarter of this year, citing production issues.
Crisis talks between the pair on Wednesday failed to achieve a breakthrough, prompting fears the argument over how many doses the EU will receive could continue.
The EU contract with AstraZeneca is an advance purchase agreement for the supply of at least 300 million doses, delivered in stages, provided the vaccine is approved as safe and effective.
The dispute has raised concerns about the international competition for limited supplies of the shots, which are hoped to ease the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, AstraZeneca, which partnered with the UK’s Oxford University to develop its vaccine, said it would cut supplies to the EU in the first quarter of this year, blaming production issues at European manufacturing plants.
An EU official said that meant the 27-member bloc would receive 60 percent fewer doses than initially agreed, down from 80 million to 31 million doses overall in the first three months of 2021.
The news came as a body blow to the EU, which has been slow in rolling out vaccines compared with some other regions and countries, especially the UK, a former member state.
The bloc has signed deals for six different vaccines, but so far its medicines regulators have only authorised the use of two – by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
The European Medicines Agency is expected to greenlight the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.
Following Wednesday’s talks, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said there was still a “continued lack of clarity” from AstraZeneca on the delivery schedule and called on the company to detail how it would supply the bloc with reserved vaccine doses.
“We will work with the company to find solutions and deliver vaccines rapidly for EU citizens,” she said in a post on Twitter.
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. We will work with the company to find solutions and deliver vaccines rapidly for EU citizens.
— Stella Kyriakides (@SKyriakidesEU) January 27, 2021
A spokesman for AstraZeneca said after the meeting that the company was committed to “coordination”.
But Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, rejected the EU’s assertion that the company was failing to honour its delivery commitments.
Soriot said vaccine delivery figures set out in AstraZeneca’s contract with the EU were just targets.
“Our contract is not a contractual commitment, it’s a best effort,’’ Soriot told Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Tuesday. “Basically, we said we’re going to try our best, but we can’t guarantee we’re going to succeed.”
Soriot also told reporters that vaccines meant for the EU were produced in four plants in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
But European Commission officials said on Wednesday that the bloc’s contract with AstraZeneca stipulated that the company had also committed to providing vaccines from two factories in the UK.
The EU’s contract with AstraZeneca is confidential and cannot be released without the agreement of both sides. The bloc has asked the company for permission to release the contract.
As of yet, it is unclear how the dispute will be settled.
The EU’s Kyriakides said on Wednesday that AstraZeneca must “live up to its contractual, societal and moral obligations” and deliver the vaccine in the quantities, and by the deadlines, originally set out by their agreement.
Kyriakides added that the firm should divert stock from its UK facilities if it it is unable to meet commitments from factories in the EU.
But a senior UK government minister said on Thursday the country’s supply of vaccines from AstraZeneca must not be interrupted.
“It is the case that the supplies which have been planned, paid for and scheduled should continue,” the Conservative Party’s Michael Gove told the BBC. “Absolutely, there will be no interruption to that.”