AstraZeneca has been squarely blamed by the EU for its comparatively slow Covid vaccine rollout after the bloc of 27 states failed to achieve its target to vaccinate 80% of older people by the end of March.
Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner with responsibility for vaccine supply and distribution, suggested the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company had been wholly at fault for a difficult and widely criticised start.
“If we had received the 100% of AstraZeneca’s vaccines that were contracted to us, the European Union would be at the same level today as Great Britain in terms of vaccines,” he told Le Parisien. “So I can say that the turbulence we have experienced is solely due to AstraZeneca’s failure to deliver.
“In the first quarter, AstraZeneca delivered only a quarter of the doses we ordered, while the British received all of them, even though our contract was signed before them, in August 2020.”
AstraZeneca, which is providing jabs on a not-for-profit basis, was only able to deliver 30m of the expected 120m doses expected by the EU in the first quarter of this year, largely due to a low yield in its plant in Belgium.
Contrary to Breton’s comments, UK officials said the company had also been unable to fulfil its commitments to the British government, with only a third of the due doses delivered. The UK and the commission are in difficult negotiations over the fate of doses being produced in an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands.
Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), dated 5 April, suggests the median proportion of those aged 80 and above in the EU who had received a first jab was 59.8%, while 29.7% had been fully vaccinated among the 25 member states that had reported on their performance.
The commission had in January set a vaccination target for the bloc’s member states that said by the end of March 2021 at least 80% of people over the age of 80 – and the same proportion of health and social care professionals in every member state – should be vaccinated.
According to the ECDC data, 62.9% was the median percentage of healthcare workers that had been given a first vaccine jab among the 14 countries that have reported to the EU agency.
In Britain, the percentage of people vaccinated aged 80 years and over was 99.4% in England, 98.3% in Wales and 98.6% in Scotland by the week ending 20 March, according to the Office for National Statistics. The percentage of people vaccinated aged 70 years and over in Northern Ireland was 96.5%.
Of those aged 80 and over who had received a first jab in England, 42.9% had received a second dose as of 28 March. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said over the weekend that 50% of over-80s in the whole of the UK had now had a second jab.
There remain concerns in government, however, that a recent rise in infection on the continent could still lead to a third wave of the pandemic in the UK just as the economy is reopening.
In Germany, where 12.7% of adults have received a first jab, and 5.5% a second, Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, has proposed a nationwide “bridging lockdown” in light of a worrying rise in Covid cases.
Laschet, a potential heir to Angela Merkel as German chancellor, has earned praise and scorn for his plan – effectively a hard lockdown – which he said should last between two and three weeks to “bridge” the time before vaccines start to have an impact.
But Breton raised hopes in a series of interviews over the weekend, insisting he believed a second target of vaccinating a minimum of 70% of the entire EU adult population by the end of August was achievable.
Rates of vaccination have increased in recent weeks in a large number of member states, including in France, and supply is due to increase exponentially in the next quarter, with 300m doses expected from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, compared with 100m in the first quarter.
“I announced the symbolic date of 14 July – I sincerely think it is achievable,” Breton said on a visit to a vaccine plant in Chenôve, near Dijon, on Sunday.
Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said his government would make good on its promise to have 70% of the country’s adult population vaccinated by the end of summer. “We’re going to manage to have 70% of Spain’s adult population – 33 million people – immunised thanks to the vaccine by the end of August,” he said.
Spain had ordered more than 87m vaccine doses for delivery between April and September. “That allows us to ensure that any Spaniard who wants to be vaccinated within that period can be,” Sánchez said.
Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid