AstraZeneca executive: ‘Exciting’ weeks ahead as State to get large deliveries

Pharma firm disappointed over failure to meet commitments, says Dan Wygal

There aren't many people crossing the Atlantic to start a new job these days, but Dan Wygal could be forgiven for not popping the Champagne corks just yet.

The new country president of AstraZeneca has been drafted in from the United States after weeks of pummelling of the drug giant by the Government over its failure to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in anything like the quantity originally envisaged.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin demanded to speak to its global chief executive. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar accused it of giving "unsatisfactory" answers. A frustrated Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly claimed AstraZeneca was "repeatedly changing its delivery schedules, often at the last minute, and revising down the volumes it had agreed to deliver".

Ireland was estimated to receive 827,000 AstraZeneca doses in the first three months of the year, based on advance purchase agreements. To date, it has received just 228,000.


The missing doses go a long way to explaining the State’s phlegmatic vaccine rollout. AstraZeneca, cheap and easy to transport, was supposed to act as the “work-horse” of the programme; instead, it has been dogged by controversy.

The scale of the mess is daunting, but Mr Wygal, who came to Dublin with his wife and two children just three weeks ago, couldn’t resist the challenge, and the chance of following up on his Irish roots.

Ramp up production

Ireland, along with other European countries, will receive “a large volume” of vaccines in the coming weeks as the company ramps up production, he tells The Irish Times in his first media interview. But he declines to be drawn on specifics for future deliveries.

“I’m not in a position to quote on absolute numbers. In the coming weeks, we’ll have some of the largest shipments yet sent into Ireland. That speaks to us driving towards that commitment of stabilising and increasing supply in the coming weeks and months,” he says.

What about next week?

“Next week is expected to be a very large week for delivery. We are expecting an exciting next couple of weeks around unit volume here in Ireland.”

AstraZeneca is now at the point of “driving greater yields, optimising everything that can possibly be optimised,” he promises. “Our focus, our pure intent is accelerating [supply], bringing as much in as we can.”

The main reason for the shortfall in deliveries goes back to problems that arose in EU manufacturing plants. Producing the vaccine involves growing cells in a bioreactor over a number of weeks, but the success of this can only be gauged when it is opened up at the end of the process.

“What we’ve seen in the EU manufacturing facilities is a much lower yield than many other parts of the world,” according to Mr Wygal.

The discovery forced the admission from the company last month that a "lower-than-expected output from the production process" would result in reduced shipments to EU states. This sparked fury from the European Commission and from the Government, with recriminations still continuing.

AstraZeneca says it has tried to identify the specific issues and to share best practice with other, more productive manufacturing plants.

“The hope is that we’ll be able to increase this yield, and the EU supply chain, quite handily over the coming months, but again it’s a process,” Mr Wygal says.

“You don’t know if you’ve had success until you’ve waited those weeks and you’ve opened the bioreactor. Hopefully what we’ll start to see is an increase yield over time.”

Production issues

AstraZeneca had expected to be able to compensate for the production issues by moving available supplies between countries, but ran into import and export controls.

“That has really mitigated our ability to make up for the shortfall. Having less of an ability to move vaccine around the world has had an impact.”

Because of the need to get product out and protect people against the disease, there wasn’t time to build up a buffer inventory, he says.

“We didn’t take that luxury. As soon as we can, we ship product, all of it.”

There have been “challenges” and “stumbles” along the way, since AstraZeneca’s scientific partners in the University of Oxford developed the vaccine late last year, he acknowledges.

Does AstraZeneca owe Irish people an apology over its failure to meet commitments?

“We’re disappointed and we feel highly accountable to do all we can. It is quite personal.”

Because the vaccine is being produced on a no-profit basis, the Irish operation has been managing the work with no extra resources, he says.

“It’s nights, it’s weekends. It’s doing all we can to optimise things and favour this into a better situation.”

He emphasises AstraZeneca’s “global ambition” to bring forward “a vaccine for the world”, delivering supplies to 145 countries. “This is a global problem that doesn’t discriminate between developed and non-developed nations.”

The company is the main supplier to Covax, the World Health Organisation’s initiative for the supply of doses to the developing world.

“Our ambition is quite noble. We are doing our level best to bring a global solution to an intense global problem.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.