EU showdown looms with UK over 30m AstraZeneca doses

All eyes on stockpile of 30m doses, as shortfalls and supply issues hold back rollout

The European Union is set for a showdown with the United Kingdom over a stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines, said to number up to 30 million doses, and coveted by both sides to shore up inoculation campaigns, as a deadly wave of infection threatens the continent.

Brussels suspects the British-Swedish company of building up a stockpile of the vaccine produced in a Dutch factory and finished in Italy that officials estimate runs into tens of millions of doses that are awaiting delivery.

The question is which contract will they go to fulfil after steep shortfalls in AstraZeneca deliveries to the EU slowed the bloc’s rollout, and with Britain also facing a squeeze in its supply that London has blamed on manufacturing delays in India.

There have been a flurry of phone calls between the capitals over the fate of the doses as the European Commission draws up proposals to tighten vaccine export controls in a bid to strong-arm AstraZeneca into delivering more vaccines.


“We were expecting deliveries that were in the hundreds [of millions], and we are not even receiving a quarter,” the commission’s chief vaccines negotiator Sandra Gallina told lawmakers on Tuesday.

“We have been discussing with member states, and we intend of course to take action because this is really an issue that cannot be left unattended. We will use all of the tools at our disposal to get the doses.”

Export permit

Under the EU’s current vaccine controls, the Italian government and the European Commission have the power to refuse an export permit for vaccines if the company has an unmet contract with the EU but proposes to send them to a list of certain countries including Britain.

Rome previously refused a permit for 250,000 AstraZeneca doses that were due to be sent to Australia, the only refusal so far in a permit system under which 41 million Covid-19 vaccines were exported from the bloc since the start of February, a quarter of them to Britain.

British prime minister Boris Johnson has lobbied Paris and Berlin over the Dutch-made AstraZeneca doses and has floated a compromise of sharing them, while ruling out blocking the export of components needed to produce Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines as a potential retaliatory move.

“We’ll continue to work with European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout. All I can say is that we in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind, of vaccines or vaccine material,” he told journalists. “It’s not something this country would dream of engaging in and I’m encouraged by some of the things I’ve heard from the continent in the same sense.”

The European Commission is expected to propose tightening controls to make it possible to block exports to countries that do not export vaccines to the EU in turn, or that have a higher vaccination rate than the EU.

Political pressure

Though national governments are under tough political pressure over lagging vaccination campaigns, there are mixed views towards export curbs, with widespread opposition including from Ireland towards any move that could also negatively impact Moderna and Pfizer, which have not had the same delivery shortfalls.

AstraZeneca did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

The company is also in hot water in the United States, where federal health officials and an independent oversight board have accused it of cherry-picking data to overstate the effectiveness of its vaccine in new trial results.

AstraZeneca issued a news release on Monday announcing its US trial had found its vaccine to be 79 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19, which boosted its stock price after the temporary suspension of its use in several European countries. But within hours, an independent panel of medical experts, which was overseeing the trial, dramatically rebuffed the announcement, accusing the company of selectively using data to exaggerate an efficacy figure that should have been 69-74 per cent.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times