AstraZeneca said it would “strongly defend itself in court” and highlighted its supply of 50m Covid vaccine doses to European countries as Brussels launched legal action against the pharmaceutical company over delivery shortfalls.
The Anglo-Swedish firm said it regretted the decision by the European commission to start a legal case over alleged breaches of an advance purchase agreement.
AstraZeneca was able to deliver only about a quarter of the expected 120m doses in the first quarter of this year because of production problems at a plant in Belgium, leading to angry accusations from Brussels.
Officials in the EU’s executive branch were particularly enraged by the refusal of the company to divert doses made in two plants in the UK. AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, had claimed he was contractually obliged to provide doses made in Oxford and Staffordshire to UK residents in the first instance.
Announcing on Monday its decision to take the company to court, a commission spokesman said the legal claim had been made as “some terms of the contract have not been respected and the company has not been in the position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure timely delivery of doses.
“What matters to us in this case: there’s a speedy delivery of a sufficient number of doses that European citizens are entitled to and have been promised on the basis of the contract,” the spokesman said. “The commission has started legal action on its own behalf and on behalf of the 27 member states that are fully in line with their support for this procedure.”
In response, AstraZeneca said it was on course to fulfil its commitments to the EU for the end of this month and noted that its vaccine made up 97% of the doses provided to the world’s poorest countries though the Covax initiative.
“Following an unprecedented year of scientific discovery, very complex negotiations, and manufacturing challenges, our company is about to deliver almost 50m doses to European countries by the end of April, in line with our forecast,” the company said in a statement.
“AstraZeneca has fully complied with the advance purchase agreement with the European commission and will strongly defend itself in court. We believe any litigation is without merit and we welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible.”
The company’s statement emphasised the difficulties in vaccine production at scale. “We are making progress addressing the technical challenges and our output is improving, but the production cycle of a vaccine is very long which means these improvements take time to result in increased finished vaccine doses,” the company said.
“Much work is ahead of us in the EU and elsewhere, as we continue to deal with the terrible pandemic and the rollout of vaccination programmes. AstraZeneca has an important role to play, and our intent remains to do that fairly and equitably at no profit during the pandemic in the EU and around the world.
“We look forward to working constructively with the EU commission to vaccinate as many people as possible. Many thousands of our employees working around the clock have been driven by a passion to help the world at no profit; they remain firmly committed to delivering our vaccine to the people of Europe and around the world.”
Last week, a number of member states raised concerns about taking legal action given the desire to build up public confidence in the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the wake of bad publicity. A diplomatic source said an overwhelming majority had, however, responded positively to the proposed claim.
The claim was formally lodged in the Belgian courts on Friday. A first hearing before a court in Brussels will take place on Wednesday.