EU officials remain frustrated by the behaviour of AstraZeneca pharmaceutical, which is still struggling to deliver the expected doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Europe, and are set to use all the tools at their disposal to secure further doses for Europeans.
“AstraZeneca is very far away from their contractual commitments,” European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis told a press conference after the weekly college of Commissioners on Wednesday (24 March).
The Anglo-Swedish vaccine manufacturer has delivered only a small portion of its contractual commitments, as they initially agreed to distribute 120 million doses in the first quarter of the year, reduced to 30 million doses at a later stage.
“But they are not even close to this figure [30 million] as of today,” Dombrovskis stressed.
On Tuesday, Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said there is good hope that the situation will improve in the second quarter, although AstraZeneca continues to underdeliver.
The number of expected doses from the company in the second quarter is 70 million, although they had originally committed to 180 million.
“It’s not a secret that we have a problem with the company,” Šefčovič said, adding that even the communication with them has proven to be difficult.
“We had to resort to a legal action simply because we did not know what else we had to do,” Šefčovič said, explaining they had tried to reach out to the company through the higher-ups in the Commission’s Directorate-General for health (DG Sante) and even the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Speaking before lawmakers in Parliament’s budget committee, the EU’s chief vaccine negotiator Sandra Gallina said on Tuesday the situation with AstraZeneca “is a shame and reputational damage of a huge extent,” highlighting that “people are dying because the vaccines are not getting here.”
According to Gallina, the under-delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines is the main issue for the bloc from the vaccine supply side, as not even a quarter of the expected AstraZeneca vaccine deliveries are being received.
According to her, 300 million doses of AstraZeneca should have been delivered starting from December to the second quarter of 2021.
However, she added that AstraZeneca is currently producing in one plant out of five. “And it’s impossible to fulfil a contract if out of five plants, you are only having one plant working,” she said.
The EU intends to use all the tools at its disposal to get more doses, several EU officials confirmed. At the moment a formal legal notice was sent to the company asking for clarifications on the difficulties experienced so far, in a bid to avert further dispute over its supplies.
“When you go and undertake an action with companies, you can have a different objective. The objective that has been agreed by the member states is to seek more doses from AstraZeneca,” said Gallina.
The Commission, for its part, has reinforced its vaccine export control mechanism to ensure reciprocity in vaccine exports.
“We have no illusion that all problems we face with companies that are under-delivering right now can be solved through one tool,” said an EU official, adding that, however, they are looking at all different options on how to increase vaccine production.
29 million doses in Italy
On Wednesday, Italian authorities found that 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were stockpiled at the Catalent’s filling plant facility in Anagni, near Rome, Italy’s daily La Stampa reported.
According to the paper, the European Commission asked the Italian authorities to investigate the plant after Commissioner Thierry Breton visited AstraZeneca’s factory in the Netherlands last March.
Commission vice-president Dombrovskis did not comment on the news as “it is for the company itself to comment on what are the intentions regarding supplies of those doses.”
Although it was initially reported that these doses were ready to be shipped to the UK, the company clarified that 13 million of such doses were bound to poorer countries under the COVAX initiative, while 16 million were to be dispatched to Europe.
However, the outcome of the inspection conducted by Italian authorities showed that the batches in Anagni were destined for Belgium, where they will be distributed among member states only, the Italian government said in a note.
Contacted by EURACTIV.com, an AstraZeneca spokesperson said that it is incorrect to describe this as a stockpile. “The process of manufacturing vaccines is very complex and time-consuming. In particular, vaccine doses must wait for quality control clearance after the filling of vials is completed,” they said.
They added that the doses destined to countries within the COVAX initiative were made outside the EU and brought to the Anagni plant to be filled into vials.
An EU official told EURACTIV that the EU executive did not want to speculate on whether or not the doses have been destined for the EU.
However, the Commission “observe a lack of transparency by AstraZeneca on how many doses they have produced where and from whom.”
According to the EU official, ensuring full transparency is of utmost importance as the company is not meeting their commitments under EU advanced purchased agreements (APAs).
The precise amount of doses needs to be confirmed by the Italian authorities and, if the company wants to export them outside of the EU, it will have to submit an export authorisation request to the Italian authorities too.
The target is the same
The plan to vaccinate 70% of Europe’s adult population by June can be still achieved according to EU officials.
“We will need to be very vigilant on the performance of all the companies, given that one of them is not living up to our expectations,” said Sandra Gallina.
She pointed out the importance of the Johnson&Johnson vaccine, which requires a single shot and therefore eases logistics. “I think it will be really a major booster to the vaccination campaign.”
According to Gallina, data for Novavax, a vaccine that still needs to be authorised in the EU, seem quite promising so far, considering the first scientific presentations given by the vaccine maker.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]