EU, AstraZeneca declare a truce in vaccine delivery dispute

The EU and AstraZeneca saga is over — hopefully. 

The European Commission and AstraZeneca announced Friday that they reached a deal for the drugmaker to supply 200 million doses by the end of March 2022 and end the contentious legal battle that was set to continue later this month. 

The dispute began in January, when AstraZeneca announced massive delivery delays to the bloc. The news set off an embarrassing year for the EU executive, which had championed the EU’s joint purchase of vaccines and was suddenly blindsided by one of its biggest vaccine suppliers at the beginning of the EU’s vaccine rollout.

The Commission, backed by EU countries, then took the fight to the Belgian courts in April, pushing the company to deliver by the end of September the entire 300 million doses that countries had ordered — roughly three months behind schedule.  

The court’s emergency ruling in June wasn’t a clear win for either party, but also not an expensive loss they feared. The judge ruled that AstraZeneca violated its contract with the EU but ordered the company to deliver only 80 million doses by the end of September — a mere 10 million more than the amount the company had delivered by that point. 

A longer case on the substance of the EU’s claim was supposed to continue in September, but with both parties largely satisfied and few EU countries in need of the viral vector doses, the Commission and AstraZeneca decided to call it quits and end their fight.

Commission spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker defended taking the Anglo-Swedish company to court in the first place. 

“Our fundamental goal has been, from the beginning, the delivery of a sufficient number of doses,” De Keersmaecker told reporters. “We are now beyond the litigation phase. We have now reached a settlement agreement, which is in the interest of both parties, which has strict delivery arrangements, and which has the firm commitment to deliver these doses.”

Under the settlement announced Friday, the Anglo-Swedish vaccine producer agreed to provide 60 million doses by the end of the third quarter, another 75 million by the end of 2021, and the last 65 million by March 2022. The company said it already delivered 100 million doses at the end of June, and 140 million doses to date.

EU countries will receive regular delivery schedules and get a rebate on delayed doses: 10 percent for one month of delays; 25 percent for two months; and 40 percent for three months or more.

The rebate won’t apply if the delay is beyond the “reasonable control,” of AstraZeneca, “which will bear the burden of proof,” according to the Commission.

A company spokesperson said AstraZeneca is “confident” it can deliver according to the new schedule.

With the EU boasting that 70 percent of its population is already fully vaccinated, few EU countries see a great need for the vaccine and plan to push mRNA shots from the biggest producer BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. 

“While this week we reached the important milestone of 70 percent full vaccination of the EU’s adult population, there are significant differences in vaccination rates between our Member States, and the continued availability of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s, remain crucial,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides wrote in a statement.

Most of the vaccines will be donated to third countries, however. The EU collectively promised to donate at least 200 million doses by the end of the year. A document from the summer showed most of the pledged doses will be Oxford/AstraZeneca shots. 

“I’m very pleased that we have been able to reach a common understanding which allows us to move forward and work in collaboration with the European Commission to help overcome the pandemic,” Ruud Dobber, AstraZeneca’s executive vice president for biopharmaceuticals, wrote in a press release.

Some experts suggest that if booster shots are needed in the not-too-distant future, people who have received mRNA vaccines could benefit from a different vaccine type like the viral vector shot from Oxford/AstraZeneca. Still, the Commission has contracts with producers of other platforms, like Novavax, which developed a protein-based vaccine that’s awaiting EU regulators’ approval.  

This story has been updated.



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