The Irish Times view on AstraZeneca v the EU: Europe’s drug wars

A dispute over deliveries distracts from the real work at hand, which can only succeed through solidarity and common endeavour

One of the most intense – and unseemly – disputes over vaccine allocation involves the European Union and the United Kingdom, whose relationship, already strained by Brexit, has been further damaged by a row over access to the AstraZeneca vaccine. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/ EPA

One of the most intense – and unseemly – disputes over vaccine allocation involves the European Union and the United Kingdom, whose relationship, already strained by Brexit, has been further damaged by a row over access to the AstraZeneca vaccine. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/ EPA

 

Vaccine nationalism has been a concern for months, but until now the principal fear was that the global competition for Covid-19 vaccines would pit rich countries against poor.

Some of those fears have already been realised: the first vaccines have been bought up by western states, which used their financial muscle to place large advance orders with big drug firms, leaving developing countries to scramble for the leftovers.

Unexpectedly, however, one of the most unseemly disputes over vaccine allocation involves the European Union and the United Kingdom, whose relationship, already strained by Brexit, has been further damaged by a row over access to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

AstraZeneca has – unwisely, given the scale of EU investment it received – refused to budge on its refusal to distribute vaccines made at its British plants to the continent

The EU is irate at having been informed by the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant, whose vaccine is expected to be approved by for use in Europe on Friday, that deliveries would be down 60 per cent on what was agreed. The company says the shortfall is due to teething problems at two manufacturing plants on the continent, but the EU regards that as an inadequate explanation and is insisting that AstraZeneca make good on the contract (the precise terms of which appear to be in dispute).

The EU has placed a large bet on this vaccine, which it saw as the workhorse of the continent’s mass immunisation project. What it finds particularly galling is that AstraZeneca has maintained its ample flow of deliveries to the UK.

Neither side is blameless. The European Commission, stung by criticism of the slow initial rollout of vaccines, overstepped by threatening an export ban, and the insinuation by anonymous officials in European capitals that AstraZeneca may be profiteering is hard to square with the fact that the firm is, unlike most of its rivals, making its vaccine available at cost price. At the same time, AstraZeneca has – unwisely, given the scale of EU investment it received – refused to budge on its refusal to distribute vaccines made at its British plants to the continent.

The result is a row that distracts from the real work at hand, which can only succeed through solidarity and a spirit of common endeavour.

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