An official from AstraZeneca says that the company has announced a delay to dose supply to the EU amounting to just "a quarter" of what was promised.

A patient receives an injection of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine by Royal Navy medics at a vaccination centre set up at Bath racecourse in Bath, England, January 27, 2020.
A patient receives an injection of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine by Royal Navy medics at a vaccination centre set up at Bath racecourse in Bath, England, January 27, 2020. (AFP)

The European Union’s dispute with AstraZeneca has intensified with the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker denying the EU’s assertion that it had pulled out of talks on vaccine supplies.

AstraZeneca said in a statement on Wednesday that it still planned to meet with EU officials in Brussels later in the day. 

The comments came after EU officials said the company had informed the bloc that it wouldn't take part in a meeting to discuss delayed vaccine commitments, the third such talks in as many days.

“The representative of AstraZeneca had announced this morning, had informed us this morning, that their participation is not confirmed, is not happening,” said Dana Spinant, the EU Commission's spokesperson.

The spat between AstraZeneca and the EU has raised concerns about vaccine nationalism, as countries desperate to end the pandemic and return to normalcy jockey for limited supplies of the precious vaccine shots.

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Failure to deliver expected doses

The latest disagreement between the two sides came after AstraZeneca rejected the EU’s accusation that the company had failed to honour its commitments to deliver coronavirus vaccines. 

AstraZeneca said the figures in its contract with the EU were targets that couldn’t be met because of problems in rapidly expanding production capacity.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot made the comments in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica following days of criticism from EU leaders furious about the news that initial shipments from AstraZeneca would be lower than anticipated.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from 80 million due to reduced yield in the manufacturing process.

“Our contract is not a contractual commitment,’’ Soriot said. “It’s a best effort. Basically we said we’re going to try our best, but we can’t guarantee we’re going to succeed. In fact, getting there, we are a little bit delayed.”

AstraZeneca said in a statement that it understands and shares “in the frustration that initial supply volumes of our vaccine delivered to the European Union will be lower than forecast.”

That was "unacceptable," an EU official said, pointing to $406 million (336 million euros) in EU funds that had been allocated to the firm for the vaccine production.

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Slowdown in distribution

AstraZeneca's two UK plants making Covid-19 vaccine must share production with the EU under the contract the drugs firm signed with Brussels, officials said on Wednesday.

"Are we expecting the UK plants to deliver doses? The answer is yes," one of the officials said, briefing journalists on condition of anonymity.

A second official said AstraZeneca's two UK plants were the priority suppliers for the EU contract, followed by one in Belgium and another in Germany.

"Let's put the sequence there so you don't have doubts. There was no secondary, or I would say backup, role for those two plants," the official said.

On Monday, the EU threatened to impose tight export controls within days on Covid-19 vaccines made in the bloc.

The EU, which has 450 million citizens and the economic and political clout of the world’s biggest trading bloc, is lagging badly behind countries like Israel and Britain in rolling out coronavirus vaccine shots for its healthcare workers and most vulnerable people. That’s despite having over 400,000 confirmed virus deaths since the pandemic began.

The shortfall of planned deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine is coming at the same time as a slowdown in the distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech shots as that company upgrades production facilities at a plant in Belgium.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies