The EU has said AstraZeneca will need to source coronavirus vaccines from UK factories to make up for a shortage of supplies to member states, a demand that could unleash an explosive political battle after Brexit.
AstraZeneca was contractually obliged to use vaccines produced in plants in the UK to meet its supply commitments to EU countries, the European Commission said, while Brussels called on the manufacturer to agree to publish its EU supply contract.
The EU’s demands marked a further escalation in a bitter dispute, as AstraZeneca said last week that first-quarter deliveries were more than 50 percent behind the bloc’s expectations.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, believes his government struck a watertight deal with AstraZeneca last year – signed three months before the EU – to deliver 100 million doses. More than 7 million people in Great Britain have received their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
Mr. Johnson told a press conference on Downing Street Wednesday evening, “We have great confidence in our stocks and our contracts and we will continue on that basis.” His allies said he wants to end the escalation of the feud and fuel “vaccine nationalism”.
When asked whether the UK would consider export restrictions on vaccines – of the kind being considered by the EU – Mr Johnson stressed the need for international cooperation in the fight against Covid-19.
Stella Kyriakides, EU health commissioner, said AstraZeneca must fulfill “contractual, social and moral obligations”. In a press conference, she stressed that there was “no hierarchy of factories” and that the drug maker’s two UK Covid-19 vaccine factories were as much part of the EU supply agreement as the two within the bloc.
“This is why they have to deliver,” she said, arguing that AstraZeneca’s position that it would not use production facilities outside the EU to fill the shortage “was contrary to the letter and spirit of our agreement. “.
Ms. Kyriakides’ statements followed comments from AstraZeneca’s Chief Executive Pascal Soriot, in which he strongly defended the company’s behavior.
Mr Soriot told European newspapers on Tuesday that the supply schedule for the block was not a “commitment” from the company, but agreed as a “best effort”. The EU signed its vaccine supply contract three months later than the UK, leaving less time to resolve production disruptions, he said. “The contract with the UK was signed first and of course the UK said ‘you deliver us first’, and this is fair enough.”
In response, Ms Kyriakides said that the EU rejected “first come, first served” logic. “That may work with the neighborhood butchers, but not in contracts – and not in our advanced ones [vaccine] purchase agreements. “
Mark Francois, chair of the British Conservative Party’s European Research Group, said the pandemic was a tragic event, but that “one of the side effects is that it brutally exposes the weakness of the EU project, from protectionism to outrageous bureaucracy”.
AstraZeneca declined to comment further, pointing instead to Mr. Soriot’s interview and a corporate statement released earlier on Wednesday.
“[AstraZeneca] understand and share the frustration that the initial delivery volumes of our vaccine supplied to the European Union will be lower than expected, ”he said. “Since each supply chain is designed to meet the needs of a specific agreement, the vaccine produced from each supply chain is destined for the relevant countries or regions and uses local production wherever possible.”
An EU official said AstraZeneca had now pledged to deliver only about a quarter of the 100 million doses the EU expected in the first three months of 2021.
In Tuesday’s interview, Mr Soriot said AstraZeneca could deliver 17 million doses to EU countries by February. In the UK, the company is on track to deliver an average of 2 million doses per week for the rest of the year, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ms Kyriakides indicated that the committee is also investigating whether vaccines produced by AstraZeneca within the EU have previously been exported to the UK. Asked if any doses had ever been shipped to the UK, she replied, “No company should have the illusion that we don’t have the resources to understand what is happening.”
An EU diplomat said: “ Given that, according to several reports, Britain has received AstraZeneca vaccines produced in the EU when the UK factories faced production shortages a few weeks ago, it would now make sense to deliver vaccines from Britain to the EU. ”
In a sign of declining vaccine stocks in the EU, Spain’s Madrid region on Wednesday stopped all new injections for at least 10 days, while Catalonia said doses were running low as well.
“The freezers will be empty tomorrow,” said Josep Maria Argimon, a Catalan top health official.
Production of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK was temporarily halted on Wednesday following the discovery of a “suspicious package” at one of the two UK plants in Wrexham, North Wales.
North Wales police said an army bomb disposal unit had examined the package and made sure it was safe to handle.
Wockhardt UK, the plant operator, later said the incident “had been completed” and that the temporary cessation of production had in no way affected the production schedule.
Additional reporting by Robert Wright and Helen Warrell in London