AstraZeneca factories in the UK should manufacture Covid-19 vaccines for the European Union, EU officials have said. The statement came as the EU's row with the pharmaceutical company deepened after it said it would fail to deliver the expected doses.
The EU hit back at the company after its chief executive Pascal Soriot gave an interview in which he blamed the supply disruption on teething problems that could have been avoided if the EU had signed its contract earlier, and suggested governments were getting "emotional".
"I categorically reject this, they signed an agreement," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said of the idea that the UK's doses should be delivered first as its contract was signed earlier.
“We reject the logic of first come, first served. That may work at the neighbourhood butchers but not in contracts, and not in our advance production agreements. There’s no priority clause in the advance production agreement.”
EU officials denied Mr Soriot’s assertion that the EU’s vaccine supply was dependent on factories located in the EU, saying that two British factories were also named as suppliers in their contract.
The row risks pitting British demands for vaccine dose deliveries against those from the EU, raising the prospect of a bitter row just weeks after Brexit took full effect. Thousands of people in the North have already received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Health minister Stephen Donnelly has warned that supply delays mean that a target of fully vaccinating the Irish population by September could be missed. “It’s not a promise,” Mr Donnelly told RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne.
Meanwhile, local authorities in the Spanish regions of Madrid and Catalonia warned they were running out of doses. “We need more doses and we need them now,” said Ignacio Aguado, the deputy head of Madrid’s regional government. “We have to move earth, sea and air to get them.”
Nevertheless, EU vaccine plans were bolstered by an announcement by Pfizer that a temporary reduction in deliveries due to a factory upgrade was now resolved, and that deliveries would shortly ramp up to make up the shortfall during the past fortnight. French pharmaceutical company Sanofi also announced it would dedicate a factory in Germany to producing the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, further boosting supply.
AstraZeneca was allocated €336 million in public EU funding to help the development and production of its vaccine in collaboration with Oxford University, in exchange for an agreement to supply the EU with 400 million early doses, part of a portfolio of more than two billion doses pre-booked by the bloc in a bid to halt the pandemic.
Of those, more than 100 million doses were due to arrive by the end of March, according to EU officials, who say the company agreed that doses would be ready to ship as soon as the vaccine is approved by the European Medicines Agency – which is expected on Friday. The company surprised the bloc last Friday by saying only a quarter of the expected amount would be delivered by the end of March, officials said.
EU officials suggested that some vaccines produced by AstraZeneca in its European factories may have been shipped elsewhere, including the UK. “The customs data do not lie,” an EU official said. “We can see vaccines were sent to many countries.” In December, the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce told reporters that the country’s initial supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine was being manufactured in the Netherlands and Germany.
Belgian authorities inspected the local AstraZeneca factory blamed for the production delays on Wednesday to verify what the problem is, officials said.
The European Commission has asked the company for its agreement to make the contract public, according to EU officials, who suggested that Mr Soriot's interview on the subject may have breached an agreement to keep it confidential.