EU AstraZeneca row: What’s the Covid vaccine contract dispute about and will it affect UK Pfizer jab supplies?
The EU is demanding that doses of AstraZeneca‘s Covid jabs be sent from British plants to make up for a shortfall in supplies for its member states. The European Commission argues that the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm is not honouring its “binding contract” to provide a specific number of shots. On Friday afternoon, it confirmed new bans on certain vaccine exports from the continent to cover the supply shortages.
Preventing vaccines made within the bloc from being shipped across the Channel could damage the UK’s access to further supplies, particularly to the Belgian-made Pfizer jab. So what is the source of the issue? And how is the row likely to play out?
What is the cause of the problem?
AstraZeneca has said it will not be able to deliver as many vaccines to the EU as initially hoped because of a production glitch. This issue – centred at a plant in Belgium – means it will not be able to meet its supply targets for the first three months of this year.
The company announced initial deliveries in the EU would total approximately 31 million doses, rather than the anticipated 80 million in the first quarter of the year.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has now called for an explanation from AstraZeneca for delivery hold-ups, as she insisted the supply orders are “binding” and “the contract is crystal clear”.
Ursula von der Leyen is demanding explanations from AstraZeneca
/ POOL/AFP via Getty Images )
Is she right about the contract?
The contract, which is at the heart of all this was made public in a heavily redacted form at lunchtime on Friday. And it is not “crystal clear” from a legal point of view.
AstraZeneca’s argument is that it pledged to “use its best reasonable efforts” to manufacture the initial doses afreed with the EU. But the EU argues that the firm is legally obliged to supply the intended number of doses, and that UK manufacturing should be used to help achieve this. The “advanced purchasing agreement” with the EU was signed in August, before the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had been properly tested.
The European Medicines Agency approved the jab for use among all over 18s just hours after the contract was released. Much of the 41-page document made public was blacked out, including details about the price of the jab. Asked for key information including exactly how many doses were promised to be delivered to the EU and when, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said: “We cannot give you the numbers, they have been redacted from the contract.”
What else has the EU said?
She has proposed forcing all drug-makers to register their Covid-19 vaccine exports in advance, so the bloc can keep track of what they are doing. Following talks on Wednesday, Ms Kyriakides added: “We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule.”
Latvian foreign affairs minister Edgars Rinkevics said states could take AstraZeneca to court for breach of supply contracts if it does not honour its delivery schedule. And Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn supported restrictions on vaccine exports, saying Europe should have its “fair share”. He added: “I can understand that there are production problems but then it must affect everyone in the same way.”
How does the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine work? On Friday, the European Commission’s chief spokesman called for UK manufacturing plans to supply doses to EU member states. Mr Mamer said: “We have always said that indeed there are a number of plants which are mentioned in the contract that we have with AstraZeneca, some of which are located in the UK, and it is foreseen that these plants will contribute to the effort of AstraZeneca to deliver doses to the European Union.
“There is absolutely no question for us that this is what the contract specifies.”
Pascal Soriot insists AstraZeneca only agreed to providing its ‘best efforts’
/ Bloomberg )
How has AstraZeneca responded?
The company’s chief executive Pascal Soriot insists that the contract only obliges AstraZeneca to use its “best efforts” to meet the EU’s demands. In an interview with Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper that was published on Tuesday, he said the EU’s deliveries were delayed in part because the bloc signed its contract three months later than the UK, and therefore EU manufacturing facilities were still catching up.
Translated by Politico, Mr Soriot reportedly said the “contract is very clear: Our commitment is, I am quoting, ‘our best effort'”. He explained that AstraZeneca and its partner Oxford University had signed a deal with the UK Government for 100 million doses three months before the EU deal for 400 million doses was agreed. In response to the EU demanding their doses were shipped concurrently, Mr Soriot suggested it was a “super stretch goal”, and added: “We said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do our best, we’re going to try, but we cannot commit contractually because we are three months behind UK’.”
Boris Johnson carries a batch of vaccines
/ REUTERS )
So will UK supplies be affected?
The majority of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine supply for the UK is manufactured here rather than at the Belgium plant so it is not expected to be disrupted. But the EU’s new rules on vaccine manufacturers is set to affect access to the Pfizer vaccine, which is produced in Belgium. Announcing the export controls on Friday, EU Health Commissioner, Ms Kyriakides said the measures were being introduced to ensure that all EU citizens had access to vaccines, and make sure all parties played by the rules.
“This approach is built on trust, transparency and responsibility,” she said. “Commitments need to be kept, and agreements are binding. Advance purchase agreements need to be respected.
“Today, we have developed a system which will allow us to know whether vaccines are being exported from the EU. This increased transparency will also come with a responsibility for the EU to authorise, with our members states, these vaccine exports.”
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The UK is scheduled to receive 3.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine over the next three weeks. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “very confident” about the UK’s vaccine supply, while Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove insisted there “will be no interruption”.
Government vaccine tsar Nadhim Zahawi also said on Tuesday he was “confident” supply of the Pfizer jab. Asked if the EU could prevent Pfizer vaccines from being exported, he told Sky News: “No, I’m confident that the Pfizer vaccine will be delivered. “Pfizer have made sure that they have always delivered for us.
“They will continue to do so.”
How many vaccine doses has the UK ordered?
The UK Government has so far secured 40 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, 100 million of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and 17 million from Moderna – the most-recently approved vaccine but supplies of it are not expected to arrive until spring.
How many doses does the UK currently have?
The UK Government has not published figures publicly on how many doses are currently available. But with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon facing sustained criticism about the vaccination rollout in Scotland seemingly moving at a slower pace than in other parts of the UK – purportedly due to vaccinating higher proportions of care home residents first – she has suggested she could soon reveal supply figures.
Ms Sturgeon said on Thursday: “I think we will just go back to publishing the actual supply figures from next week, so that we all have transparency around that.”
The Scottish Government did – briefly – publish the vaccine doses it had access to, but retracted the documents at the request of the UK Government over apparent concerns about other countries knowing how much is being supplied. He said: “We’re in favour of the maximum possible transparency that is compatible with security of supply. That’s the crucial thing, we’ve got to ensure we continue to have national security of supply.”
How many people have been vaccinated in the UK so far?
As of Thursday, official figures showed 7,447,199 people in the UK had received a first dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines.