A row over coronavirus vaccine shortages in the EU has descended into farce as AstraZeneca denied claims by the European commission that it had pulled out of a crunch meeting over a breakdown in supplies.
Within minutes of a spokeswoman for the commission announcing that the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company was refusing to attend, the claim was rebutted in a short statement. “We can confirm we have not pulled out and will be attending talks with the EU commission later today,” a spokesman for AstraZeneca said.
The EU’s executive branch is hoping to find a way for AstraZeneca to make good on its vaccine supply deal, after the company warned the bloc of 60% shortfall following lower than expected yields at its Belgian plant.
But on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the commission said they had been informed that morning that AstraZeneca executives would not be attending the latest crunch talks, the third session in as many days.
“I can confirm that indeed tonight there is a meeting of the [commission] steering board of the vaccine strategy and a representative of AstraZeneca had announced this morning that their participation is not confirmed, is not happening, and this is the only information we can give at this stage,” they said.
The company responded within minutes to deny the claim.
The commission wants vaccine doses produced in a UK plant to be diverted to the EU once the product receives its expected authorisation by the European Medicines Agency on Friday. But in an interview on Monday, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, had said British requirements would come first.
“The UK agreement was reached in June, three months before the European one,” Soriot said. “As you could imagine, the UK government said the supply coming out of the UK supply chain would go for the UK first. Basically, that’s how it is.”
The UK’s medicines regulator approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in December. The company has been contracted to supply 2m doses a week to the UK.
Its attitude had been described as “unacceptable” by EU officials, who are under increasing pressure over the slow progress of the vaccination programmes in its member states.
While the UK has administered first doses to about 10% of adults and plans to have vaccinated the most vulnerable 15 million – including all over-70s – by mid-February, the EU has reached 2% so far.
Analysis by Airfinity, a UK-based analytics company, suggests the UK will have achieved effective “herd immunity” by vaccinating 75% of the adult population by 14 July, while the EU will have to wait until 21 October based on supply deals and the latest delays.
In a speech to the World Economic Forum on Tuesday, the president of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had made clear her anger at AstraZeneca’s approach, warning that the EU “means business”.
“The EU and others helped with money to build research capacities and production facilities,” she said. “Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines. To create a truly global common good. And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations.”
The commission is to release details of a new “transparency register” by the end of the week to oblige vaccine suppliers to notify it of exports – with the German government raising the prospect of a block on the movement of doses outside the EU.
The EU wants to ensure that doses made in AstraZeneca’s plants in Belgium and the Netherlands are not sent to the UK. There is also the risk that exports of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from European plants could be blocked from reaching the UK, although the commission has sought to assuage those fears.