AstraZeneca’s chief executive has insisted the UK will come first for vaccines as he rejected calls to divert doses to the European Union following a breakdown in supply.
Amid a growing row, Pascal Soriot, the French head of the pharmaceutical giant, said the UK was benefiting from being early to sign a contract for 100m doses.
There is growing anger in Brussels and EU capitals at AstraZeneca’s announcement on Friday of a shortfall of more than 60% on the intended schedule of deliveries to the bloc in the first quarter of this year.
While the UK has administered vaccine first doses to about 10% of adults and plans to vaccinate the most vulnerable 15 million – including all over-70s – by mid-February, the EU has reached 2% so far. The UK’s regulator approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in late December and the EU’s is expected to do so on Friday.
But Soriot said Downing Street would have first claim on the doses manufactured in the UK and that the EU would have to wait. “The UK agreement was reached in June, three months before the European one,” he said. “As you could imagine, the UK government said the supply coming out of the UK supply chain would go for the UK first. Basically, that’s how it is.”
The European commission did not deny claims on Tuesday that during heated talks EU officials had asked the Anglo-Swedish company to redirect doses made in the UK to make up for problems at a Belgian plant.
In a speech to the World Economic Forum on Tuesday, the president of the European commission Ursula von der Leyen made clear her anger at AstraZeneca’s approach, warning the EU “means business”.
“The EU and others helped with money to build research capacities and production facilities,” she said. “Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines. To create a truly global common good. And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations.”
The commission is to release details of a new export register by the end of the week to oblige vaccine suppliers to notify it of exports – with the German government raising the spectre of a block on the movement of doses outside the EU.
Soriot called for calm, insisting the UK had a right to the doses produced with scientists at Oxford University. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he said: “In the EU agreement it is mentioned that the manufacturing sites in the UK were an option for Europe – but only later. But we’re moving very quickly, the supply in the UK is very rapid.
“The government is vaccinating 2.5 million people a week, about 500,000 a day, our vaccine supply is growing quickly. As soon as we have reached a sufficient number of vaccinations in the UK, we will be able to use that site to help Europe as well. But the contract with the UK was signed first and the UK, of course, said ‘you supply us first’, and this is fair enough.”
Analysis by Airfinity, a UK-based analytics company working for the life sciences industry, suggests the UK will have achieved effective “herd immunity” by vaccinating 75% of the adult population by 14 July while the EU will have to wait until 21 October based on supply deals and the latest delays.
Soriot said his company had little choice but to cut supply to the EU because of “reduced yields” at a manufacturing plant in Belgium, where the vaccine is initially cultivated.
The company has created separate supply chains in every major market the vaccine will be available – but unlike in the EU, the UK operation is already established.
Soriot said: “The UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced. As for Europe, we are three months behind in fixing those glitches.”
Reuters news agency reported that the EU had asked AstraZeneca whether it could divert doses produced in the UK until at least March but it had not responded. Negotiations are continuing.
“We see that doses are being delivered elsewhere and we know that we have signed an agreement,” the commission’s chief spokesman said.
Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said it was clear that AstraZeneca had sufficient doses to fulfil other contracts. He said: “With a complex process like vaccine production, I can understand if there are production problems, but then it has to affect everyone fairly and equally.
“This is not about ‘EU first’, this is about … the fair share and that’s why, from my point of view, it makes sense that we have an export restriction.”
“[That] means that vaccines that leave the EU need a permit so that we can first of all know what is being manufactured in Europe, what is leaving Europe, where it is leaving Europe and whether it is then also a fair distribution.”
Speaking in Downing Street, Boris Johnson said he did not expect Brussels to stand in the way of the government’s orders of Pfizer jabs, which are made in Belgium. “We expect and hope that our EU friends will honour all contracts,” he said.
AstraZeneca’s first supply contract was signed with the UK in May last year. Ministers were keen to ensure that a UK company commercialised the Oxford University technology, rejecting an alternative deal with US giant Merck.
Insiders at the time were worried that Donald Trump, the former US president, might put pressure on Merck to halt supplies to the UK. “What we didn’t expect was the EU might end up going down this path,” a former UK government official said.
A deal between AstraZeneca and the EU was signed in August for 300m doses with an option on a further 100m, giving less time to set up the manufacturing process.
In evidence to the European parliament, the executive director of the European medicines agency, Emer Cooke, said she hoped that the supply shortages within the EU would be “short-lived”.