BRUSSELS – The dispute between the European Union and AstraZeneca over vaccine supplies escalated on Wednesday as the drugmaker defended itself against claims it had reneged on contractual commitments and the two sides quarreled over plans additional negotiations.
AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot addressed the dispute for the first time, dismissing the EU’s claim that the company was not meeting its commitments to deliver vaccines against the coronavirus. Soriot said the delivery figures in AstraZeneca’s contract with the EU were targets, not firm commitments, and could not be met due to issues with the rapid expansion of capacity. production.
“Our contract is not a contractual commitment,” Soriot said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “It’s a better effort. Basically we said we were going to do our best, but we cannot guarantee that we will be successful. In fact, to get there, we are a little behind. ”
After the interview was published, an EU spokeswoman said AstraZeneca withdrew from discussions on vaccine supply issues on Wednesday, which AstraZeneca immediately denied. Hours later, the EU said talks were back.
The EU, which has 450 million citizens and the economic and political influence of the world’s largest trading bloc, lags far behind countries like Israel and Britain in rolling out coronavirus vaccines for its healthcare workers and the most vulnerable. And this despite more than 400,000 confirmed virus deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The row has also raised concerns about vaccine nationalism, as countries desperately want to end the pandemic and return to normal for limited supplies of the precious vaccines. On Monday, the bloc of 27 countries threatened to put in place export controls on all vaccines manufactured in its territory.
The EU has signed agreements to gain access to six different vaccines, but so far has only approved those from Pfzier-BioNTech and Moderna. The European medicines regulator will review the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.
AstraZeneca said last week that it plans to reduce initial deliveries to the EU to 31 million doses from 80 million due to reduced yields from its manufacturing process in Europe. This sparked an angry backlash from the EU, which says it expects the company to deliver the full amount on time.
AstraZeneca is building more than a dozen regional supply chains around the world to meet regional demand for its vaccine. Overall, AstraZeneca plans to deliver up to 3 billion doses to countries around the world by the end of 2021.
However, setting up each facility is a complicated process that involves training staff and ensuring that each batch of vaccine is safe and effective. Sometimes it goes well, but in other cases there are issues, Soriot said.
“We train them in manufacturing,” he said. “And then, you know, some people are new to this process. It is as if they are learning the process. They don’t know how to make the vaccine and they are not as effective as others.
There are two basic steps in the production of the vaccine. The first is a biological process that involves the growth of cells, which are injected with a virus, Soriot said. The second is to turn that “drug substance” into the final product, fill vials and test each batch of vaccine.
Soriot said AstraZeneca had to cut deliveries to the EU because factories in Europe were performing below expectations from the biological process used to produce the vaccine. It has also happened in other regions as AstraZeneca sought to rapidly expand its production capacity to meet demand from countries struggling with the pandemic.
“We’ve also had start-up issues like this in the UK supply chain,” Soriot said. “But the UK contract was signed three months before the Europe Vaccine Agreement, so with the UK we had three more months to correct all the problems we had. As for Europe, we are three months behind in resolving these problems. ”
An official from the European Commission, the organization’s executive, said the bloc had agreed to give Astra Zeneca € 336 million ($ 407 million) to develop its vaccine and deliver doses. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said all the money had not been paid and insisted that the commission specify in the contract that it would have the right to recover some of the money. money in case of failure.
The official did not say whether failure to deliver the doses on time would violate the agreement. The official also confirmed that the commission is studying legal ways to inspect AstraZeneca’s facilities in Belgium in order to better understand production shortages.
If the company’s UK factories operate more efficiently than those on the mainland, the EU expects to receive doses made in Britain as provided for in the contract, the official said.
The shortfall in planned deliveries of AstraZeneca vaccine comes alongside a slowdown in the distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech injections as Pfizer upgrades production facilities at a factory in Belgium.
“There are a lot of emotions in this process right now, and I can understand it: people want the vaccine. I also want the vaccine, I want it today, ”Soriot said. “But, at the end of the day, it’s a complicated process.
In North Wales, a factory manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had to be partially evacuated on Wednesday after receiving a “suspicious package”.
Wockhardt UK, a branch of the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company that produces the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, said it notified authorities after receiving the package at its factory 68 kilometers south of Liverpool.
Police blocked the roads around the factory and the BBC reported that a demining unit had been called in.
Kirka reported from London. Sylvia Hui contributed from London