A row over coronavirus vaccine shortages in the EU has descended into farce as AstraZeneca denied claims by the European Commission it had pulled out of a crunch meeting over a breakdown in supplies.
Within minutes of a spokeswoman for the commission announcing the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company was refusing to attend, the claim was rebutted in a short statement.
“We can confirm we have not pulled out and will be attending talks with the EU commission later today,” a spokesman for AstraZeneca said.
The EU’s executive branch is hoping to find a way for the company to make good on a 60 per cent reduction in doses forewarned by the pharmaceutical giant on Friday following lower-than-expected yields of the vaccine at its Belgian plant.
But on Tuesday, a spokesman for the commission had said it had been informed that morning that AstraZeneca executives would not be attending the latest talks, the third session in as many days.
“I can confirm that indeed tonight there is a meeting of the [commission] steering board of the vaccine strategy and a representative of AstraZeneca had announced this morning that their participation is not confirmed, is not happening, and this is the only information we can give at this stage,”, he said.
The company responded in minutes.
The commission wants vaccine doses produced in a UK plant to be diverted to the EU once the product receives its expected authorisation by the European Medicines Agency on Friday.
Earlier, AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot attributed its vaccine delivery shortfall in Europe to production teething problems – and the EU's delay in signing a contract with the pharmaceutical firm.
Mr Soriot said he understands frustration with his company but hit back at claims that its cut in vaccine dose delivery to the EU was allowing it prioritise the UK and other customers.
The European Commission has described delays in vaccine delivery – 40 per cent below targets in March – as “not acceptable”, with some EU member states threatening legal action.
Mr Soriot said such threats are baseless, claiming his company had always only promised its “best effort” to supply the EU in parallel with the UK.
The company's problems at EU production plants in the Netherlands and Belgium, he said, are due to a lower output in some production tanks containing vaccine culture.
"We had similar teething problems in the UK, but the contract with the British was signed three months before that with Brussels, and we had three months more time to sort out issues," he told Germany's Die Welt daily and Italy's La Repubblica.
The AstraZeneca chief executive said his company was not profiteering or price-gouging, as it had undertaken to produce the vaccine in conjunction with Oxford University on a non-profit basis.
The French-born manager said he would not tolerate any preferred treatment for non-EU customers. “I’m a European, our chairman is too, as is our finance chief,” he said.
As for German media claims the vaccine had an efficacy of merely 8 percent in the elderly population, Mr Soriot said he had “no idea” where such claims came from.
“How can one assume that testing bodies around the world would grant a licence to a substance with only eight per cent efficacy,” he asked.
The company’s vaccine is already being used in the UK, with the EU’s medical approval likely to follow next week.
Pending approval, the company will deliver three million doses to the EU, increasing each week until a ceiling of 17 million per seven days is reached. The doses will be divided and distributed around the EU based on population size.
Calling into doubt the vaccine’s efficacy, he warned, was a gift to anti-vaccine movements gathering strength around the continent.
“Whoever has something to say about security or efficacy should do it in scientific circles, it’s disgraceful to do this for political means because it reduces the trust in vaccination,” he said.
Among the concerns raised about the vaccine’s efficacy are how only 8 per cent of the subjects in the Oxford vaccine trials were between 56 and 69 years of age, and only 3 to 4 percent were over 70 years of age.
Mr Soriot said that ethical reasons were behind the low numbers of older test subjects.
“Oxford . . . didn’t want to test older people until they had enough data from the 18-55-year-old group,” he said. “But we have robust data that prove a strong antibody production against the virus among older people.”
Mr Soriot said it was too soon to tell whether the company’s vaccine would protect against virus mutations already in circulation.
Politicians across Europe have backed calls to introduce export permits for vaccines, amid concerns that AstraZeneca’s EU-based factories were prioritising production for other areas in the world at the expense of Europeans.
Mr Soriot said such talk of export restrictions was “exactly the opposite” of undertakings given by the European Commission in recent months. Such proposals for its EU production facilities, he added, risked undermining the company’s international delivery chain.
He suggested a lack of global readiness for pandemics, and the resulting lapse into nationalist instincts, was the main challenge in tackling the pandemic.
Vaccine development in record time “could have been a Fourth of July, Independence Day kind of a moment, but it unfortunately wasn’t because there was a little bit of ‘me first’ behaviour,” he told a virtual panel of the World Economic Forum.
As well as battling Brussels, the Swedish company is being sued by a pension fund on behalf of its investors, claiming they suffered losses because of flaws in the company’s testing of its coronavirus vaccine.– additional reporting Guardian