AstraZeneca confirmed on Wednesday that the European Union will only receive 20% of the doses of Covid-19 vaccines ordered at the end of the first quarter. This delay makes the laboratory the target of the ire of European officials who suspect it of favoritism towards the British.
“Governments [européens] are under pressure. Everyone is a little bit, how to put it, irritable or emotional. ” Pascal Soriot, CEO of the AstraZeneca laboratory, tried, Tuesday January 26, to put into perspective the criticisms and threats that several European politicians have addressed since this weekend to the manufacturer of the vaccine against Covid-19, developed in partnership with the Oxford University.
It must be said that there is little more than insults. AstraZeneca has been accused, barely enough, of lying, withholding information, breaching the terms of its contract with the EU and making Europe the poor relation of its vaccine distribution strategy.
A delay at the worst time
A meeting was even to take place in Brussels, Wednesday January 27, to give the Anglo-Swedish laboratory the opportunity to explain, but he decided at the last moment not to participate. He did not give an explanation to justify this gesture which will probably make the situation worse.
AstraZeneca sparked an initial outcry on Friday January 22, announcing that it would not be able to deliver all of the vaccines promised to the EU by the agreed deadline. The laboratory said on Wednesday that Brussels should only receive about 20 million doses of the Oxford vaccine instead of the 80 million announced. A delay that could hardly come at a worse time.
Several European countries, notably France and Germany, are indeed facing popular discontent about their vaccination strategy considered too slow. For now, these governments can only use vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer / BioNtech, the only two authorized by European health authorities. The green light from the European Medicines Agency to that of Oxford, supposed to intervene at the end of the week, was to allow stocks to be quickly replenished. And thus move up to a higher vaccine speed. Europe relied all the more on the vaccine from Oxford as Pfizer had also, last week, warned of delays in delivery.
Above all, Brussels believed that AstraZeneca was its most reliable partner in the fight against the pandemic. It is the first laboratory with which the EU has concluded a vaccine purchase contract, in August 2020. It is from him that the EU ordered the most doses (400 million in all), even if it means criticized for betting too much on a manufacturer.
But Brussels felt that this vaccine was cheaper and easier to store than those from Moderna or BioNtech, which need to be kept at an extremely low temperature. In addition, AstraZeneca, a veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, has much more experience in the large-scale production of vaccines or drugs than the other two companies born after 2000, recalls the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Suspicion of favoritism
Hence the incomprehension that prompted the EU from Monday to demand the Anglo-Swedish laboratory to justify itself. Second outcry: AstraZeneca would not have provided a satisfactory explanation for this delay. The laboratory simply indicated that there had been a problem at one of its European sites – the one in Belgium, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The answers given would have “lacked clarity and precision”, declared Stélla Kyriakídou, the European Commissioner for Health.
The Europeans then began to suspect the laboratory of favoring the United Kingdom. London had, in fact, had no problem obtaining all the doses ordered. “AstraZeneca has to choose: either it’s a British laboratory or an international group that treats everyone the same,” said Peter Liese, health spokesperson for the European People’s Party, the conservative MEPs group.
Along with other politicians, he wants to know if the laboratory has not tapped into production from EU sites – in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – to ensure that London is not lacking for anything.
A serious accusation that seems to have made its way to the highest European authorities. “The European Union wants to know precisely how many doses have been produced so far, where and to which countries they have been exported,” European Commissioner Stélla Kyriakidou said on Tuesday.
The Commission even allowed the threat of imposing an export control system to hover, while remaining unclear on the outlines of this measure. It could be a simple register obliging laboratories to notify Brussels of any exports of vaccine doses. But Jens Spahn, the German Minister of Health, judged that it “would make sense to put in place restrictions”. A firmness also adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron. This device would then be similar to that put in place in spring 2020 for protective masks and which made any export conditional on prior authorization.
A threat which did not please the United Kingdom which sees in it a kind of “vaccine protectionism”, underlines the BBC. The affair of the doses of vaccine of the discord thus risks to weigh even more the atmosphere a little more already very heavy between London and Brussels since Brexit.
Faced with this escalation of tensions, Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca, made a point of giving his version of the facts on Tuesday, suggesting that the current situation was the result of the EU’s haste. He claimed that Brussels had placed an order three months after London demanding to be delivered at the same time.
In this context, it should come as no surprise that logistical problems hit the EU rather than the UK. “We also had concerns in the United Kingdom, but we had more time to remedy them,” Pascal Soriot assured the German daily Die Welt.
He further suggests that Brussels misread the signed contract. “Our commitment is very clear: we have said that we will do ‘our best efforts’ to meet the targets,” AstraZeneca CEO told Italian daily La Repubblica. In other words, there would be no obligation of result to deliver the 80 million doses on time. A way for the laboratory to warn that it was not afraid of threats brandished by certain states – including Italy – to sue AstraZeneca for breach of the terms of the contract.
Overall, Pascal Soriot considers that the EU “has been treated very fairly”. “Europe will receive 17% of our global production… whereas it represents only 5% of the world population”, he summed up. AstraZeneca clearly does not want to play the role of scapegoat in the European context of complicated vaccination campaigns.