Grilled by European lawmakers, the chief executive of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot, gave only vague explanations about recent supply cuts of COVID-19 vaccines and about the preferential treatment given to the UK, failing to guarantee the expected EU deliveries for the second quarter of the year.
On Thursday (25 February), the CEOs of all vaccine manufacturing companies gathered virtually at the European Parliament to discuss with MEPs how to increase the capacity and improve deliveries of COVID-19 shots.
Unsurprisingly, AstraZeneca’s Soriot stole the show, attempting the tough task of restoring his company’s damaged credibility after the delays in the shipment of its vaccines caused a lot of back and forth with the EU.
Soriot spent most of the one-and-a-half-hour hearing on the ropes, taking the blows from relentless MEPs to whom he replied by repeating tirelessly that the company is working 24/7 to catch up and get to where it would like to be.
Soriot said he was disappointed that the lower-than-expected output in AstraZeneca’s supply chain has affected their ability to deliver, but stressed they are currently doing all they can to ramp up the production and enable the vaccination of over 10% of the EU population.
Asked if the company will deliver the expected 180 million doses in the contract for the second quarter of 2021, he said he is “confident” they can actually reach the volume originally communicated to the EU.
“We are working 24/7 to improve delivery and hopefully catch up to the expectations for Q2,” he told MEPs, visibly not satisfied by the answer.
As reported by Reuters, the head of AstraZeneca’s Italian unit was previously quoted as saying the company will meet the target, while other reports at the beginning of the week say the Anglo-Swedish big pharma is expected to deliver less than half of the COVID-19 vaccines it was contracted to supply to the EU.
“AstraZeneca CEO was unable to confirm before the European Parliament that they will honour the planned delivery of 180 million doses in Europe in the second half of the year,” the chair of the European Parliament’s public health committee, Pascal Canfin, commented after the meeting
The French liberal MEP added that this will lead to further tensions with the company.
Before the hearing, EU’s health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides confirmed that the ambitious target of having 70% of the European adult population vaccinated by summer is still reachable.
However, from the slides the Commission president Ursula von der Leyen presented to EU leaders during a virtual European Council on Thursday, it appeared clear that this target strongly relies on the “deliveries pending confirmation” in the Q2, of which AstraZeneca shots account for a lion’s share.
Not all countries provide a breakdown of the total of first and second doses administered. pic.twitter.com/FE6PlZiFMN
— Eric Mamer (@MamerEric) February 25, 2021
The additional problems of vaccine acceptance and slow national vaccination programmes add up to the hardships in ensuring timely supplies.
According to an investigation by the Guardian, four out of five of the AstraZeneca vaccine doses delivered to the EU countries are yet to be used.
Soriot said clinical trials have shown a 100% efficacy against hospitalisation and a severe form of the disease.
Outcomes of the clinical trials have recently been confirmed in real-world evidence in a Scottish study on 1.1 million people, which showed a 94% reduction of hospitalisation in the over-60 population.
“Delays? Simple math..”
During his defence, Soriot downplayed the problems experienced by AstraZeneca that ultimately affected the EU supply chain.
“The reason why the EU supply is lower than expected is very simple and has to do with a lower yield, a lower productivity,” he said, adding that the manufacturing of a vaccine is a very complex biological process that also requires a learning phase
He explained that when they entered the agreement with Oxford, the initial assumption of the university was for the productivity of 5,000 doses coming out of one litre, but in the end, they adopted a much lower assumption in the forecast “because we wanted to be conservative.”
It turns out that some of the production sites have delivered this assumption and other sites have delivered half of the assumption.
“Therefore we deliver half of the assumption, which is half of the number of doses per litre, then the prediction is half what you expected. It’s pretty simple, it’s just simple math,” he said.
Asked about the preferential treatment to the UK, Soriot said the overwhelming majority of vaccines produced in the EU goes to EU supply and stressed that the UK supply is not an issue for the EU, since it is for 65 million people, while the EU population is way bigger.
“Even if we took the entire supply of the UK, it would not make a huge difference to the European community,” he concluded.
Soriot also confirmed once again that there is no secondary market as AstraZeneca supplies its vaccines directly to governments.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]