Vaccine delay increases tension as AstraZeneca, EU spur


BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union and drugmaker AstraZeneca have delayed delivery of the coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday as the deepening controversy sparks concerns about increased competition for the limited supply of shots needed to end the epidemic.

AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot addressed the controversy for the first time, rejecting the EU’s claim that the company had failed to honor its commitments. Soriot said that AstraZeneca’s contract with the 27-nation bloc had targets for vaccine delivery, not firm commitment, and could not be met due to problems in rapid expansion of production capacity.

“Our contract is not a contractual commitment, it is a best effort,” Soriot said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “Originally, we said that we were going to do our best, but we could not guarantee that we were going to succeed. In fact, we are slightly delayed in getting there. “

AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the European Union to 31 million doses as yields from its manufacturing process declined in Europe. It reacted angrily to the European Union, which says it expects the company to deliver the full amount on time. On Monday, the European Union threatened to impose export controls on all vaccines made in its territory.

The European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyrakids, rejected the explanation of Soriot’s delay, saying that “not being able to ensure manufacturing capacity is against the letter and spirit of our agreement.”

For the purpose of resolving the dispute, the third round of talks for several days is scheduled in Brussels on Wednesday evening.

“I ask AstraZeneca to rebuild trust, provide full information and fully engage to fulfill my contractual, social and moral obligations,” Kyrikaides said at a media briefing in Brussels.

The EU, which has 450 million citizens and the economic and political dominance of the world’s largest trading bloc, is lagging badly behind Countries like Israel and Britain roll out coronovirus vaccine shots for their health care workers and the most vulnerable. This is despite more than 400,000 confirmed virus-related deaths since the epidemic began.

The European Union has signed deals for six different vaccines, but so far regulators have authorized the use of only two, one by Pfizer and the other by Modern. The EU drug regulator will consider the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.

AstraZeneca is setting up more than a dozen regional supply chains worldwide to meet regional demand for its vaccines. In total, AstraZeneca plans to deliver 3 billion doses to countries around the world by the end of 2021.

However, setting up each facility is a complex process in which it is safe and effective to train people and ensure each batch of vaccine. Sometimes it gets done easily, but in other cases there are problems, Soryot said.

“We train them to manufacture, how they said.” And then, you know, some people are new to the process. It’s like they learn the process. They don’t know how to make a vaccine and They should not be as efficient as others.

There are two basic stages in the production of a vaccine. Soriot stated that the first biological process involves growing cells, which are infected with the virus. The second involves converting this “narcotic” into a final product, filling vials and testing each batch of vaccines.

Soriot stated that AstraZeneca had to reduce deliveries in the European Union because plants in Europe had lower yields than expected from the biological process used to produce the vaccine. This has also happened in other regions as AstraZeneca sought to rapidly expand production capacity to meet the demands of countries battling the epidemic.

“We’ve also had early issues like this in the UK supply chain,” said Soriot. “But the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal, so with the UK we had three months of extra time to fix all the glits. For Europe, we would have three months to fix those messes. Are behind. “

A European Commission official said that the EU executive said that the block agreed to pay 336 million euros ($ 407 million) to develop and dose its vaccine. The officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly, stated that the commission would be entitled to recover part of the money if the company fails to meet the terms of this advance purchase agreement.

If the company’s UK plants are operating more efficiently than on the continent, the EU expects to receive a dose made in the UK as provided in the contract.

“We reject the first-come, first-served argument,” Kyriakides said. “He can do neighborhood butchery work, but not in contracts and not in our advance purchase agreements. There is no priority in the Advanced Purchase Agreement. “

The reduction in planned deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine is coming at the same time as the Pfizer upgrade production facilities at a plant in Belgium at the same time as the slowdown in the delivery of Pfizer-BioNotech shots.

“There’s a lot of emotion going on in the process right now, and I can understand it: people want vaccines,” said Soriot. “I want the vaccine too, I want it today. But, at the end of the day, it is a complex process.

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Danica Kirka reported from London.

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