EU starts legal action against AstraZeneca over vaccine shortfalls
As Brussels initiated legal proceedings against the pharmaceutical firm over distribution shortfalls, AstraZeneca said it would “vigorously defend itself in court” and highlighted its supply of 50 million Covid vaccine doses to European countries.
The Anglo-Swedish company expressed concern for the European Commission’s decision to initiate legal proceedings over suspected violations of an advance purchasing agreement.
Because of production problems at a plant in Belgium, AstraZeneca was only able to produce around a quarter of the planned 120 million doses in the first quarter of this year, prompting angry allegations from Brussels.
Officials from the EU’s executive branch were especially outraged by the company’s reluctance to divert doses manufactured in two UK plants. Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, said he was contractually obligated to offer doses made in Oxford and Staffordshire to UK residents first.
A spokesman for the commission said the legal argument was made because “certain terms of the contract have not been met” and “the firm has not been able to come up with a reliable plan to ensure timely distribution of doses.”
“What matters to us in this situation is that a sufficient number of doses are delivered quickly,” the spokesman said. “In its own behalf and on behalf of the 27 member states that completely endorse this process, the commission has initiated legal proceedings.”
In addition, AstraZeneca said that it was on track to meet its EU commitments by the end of the month, and that its vaccine accounted for 97 percent of the doses distributed through the Covax initiative to the world’s poorest countries.
“Following an extraordinary year of scientific exploration, extremely difficult negotiations, and manufacturing difficulties, our business is on track to deliver nearly 50 million doses to European countries by the end of April, as planned,” the company said in a statement.
“AstraZeneca has completely complied with the European Commission’s advance purchase agreement and will vigorously defend itself in court. We agree that any lawsuit is without substance, and we appreciate the opportunity to settle this matter as quickly as possible.”
The company’s statement emphasized the challenges of large-scale vaccine development. “We are making strides in overcoming the technological challenges, and our productivity is improving,” the company said. “However, since the manufacturing period of a vaccine is very long, these changes will take time to translate into increased finished vaccine doses.”
“As we continue to cope with the terrible pandemic and the rollout of vaccine programs in the EU and elsewhere, we have a lot of work ahead of us. AstraZeneca has a critical role to play in the pandemic in the EU and around the world, and we want to do so equally and equitably at no profit.
“We look forward to cooperating constructively with the European Commission in order to vaccinate as many citizens as possible. Thousands of our workers have worked around the clock to support the world for no profit, and they remain steadfast in their commitment to getting our vaccine to the citizens of Europe and the rest of the world.”
Last week, a number of member states expressed reservations about taking legal action in the face of negative publicity surrounding the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. An overwhelming majority, according to a diplomatic source, had reacted positively to the proposed assertion.
On Friday, the lawsuit was formally filed in Belgian courts. On Wednesday, a preliminary hearing will be held before a Brussels judge.