AstraZeneca obligation to supply EU with UK-made vaccines exposed

File photo. The AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in a refrigerator at Robertson House in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Britain, 11 January 2021. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

The European Commission’s contract with AstraZeneca to supply COVID-19 vaccines includes Britain along with the EU as places where the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker should make its best efforts to manufacture its vaccines for the EU.

The contract is at the heart of a dispute over access to vaccines, after AstraZeneca announced last week it would fall short of delivering promised vaccines to the EU by March because of production problems in Belgium.

AstraZeneca has been making large quantities of its vaccine in Britain, but has said a contract it signed with the British government requires it to fulfil Britain’s order before it can send doses manufactured there abroad, including to the EU.

The company agreed on Friday (29 January) to publication of its advance purchase agreement with the European Commission. The 41-page contract was published, although certain parts were blackened.

In a section on manufacturing sites, the contract reads: “AstraZeneca shall use its Best Reasonable Efforts to manufacture the vaccine at manufacturing sites located within the EU (which for the purpose of this Section 5.4 only shall include the United Kingdom)”.

At the time the contract was signed, Britain had left the EU but was still subject to most EU rules in a transition period which ended at the start of this year.

The contract goes on to say that AstraZeneca may manufacture at facilities elsewhere to accelerate supply of the vaccine in Europe, provided that it gives prior notification.

The contract does not say whether AstraZeneca is obliged to send vaccines produced in Britain to the European Union. The Commission has said it does have the right to doses made in Britain.

The Commission said it welcomed the company’s commitment towards more transparency. An EU official said that 95% of the blackened text was at the request of AstraZeneca.

AstraZeneca and the EU had signed a deal for up to 400 million doses of the vaccine. Last week, the firm unexpectedly announced cuts of up to 60% in supplies to the bloc, citing production problems at a Belgian factory, triggering a furious response from the bloc.

The EU is now looking into a scheme to monitor and authorise export of vaccines, potentially blocking them if its own supply is not met.

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