Is the EU to blame for AstraZeneca's vaccine shortage?

27 January 2021

3:00 AM

27 January 2021

3:00 AM

The important difference between AstraZeneca’s relationship with the UK and its relationship with the EU – and the reason it has fallen behind schedule on around 50m vaccine doses promised to the bloc – is that the UK agreed its deal with AstraZeneca a full three months before the EU did. This gave AstraZeneca an extra three months to sort out manufacturing and supply problems relating to the UK contract (there were plenty of problems).

Here is the important timeline. In May AstraZeneca reached an agreement with Oxford and the UK government to make and supply the vaccine. In fact, Oxford had already started work on the supply chain.

The following month AstraZeneca reached a preliminary agreement with Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy, a group known as the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance, based on its agreement with the UK. That announcement was on 13 June.

But the EU then insisted that the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance could not formalise the deal, and the European Commission took over the contract negotiations on behalf of the whole EU. So there were another two months of talks and the contract was not signed until the end of August.

What is frustrating for AstraZeneca is that the extra talks with the European Commission led to no material changes to the contract, but this wasted time that could have been spent making arrangements to manufacture the vaccine with partner sites. The yield at these EU partner sites has been lower than expected.

That problem is in the course of being sorted. AstraZeneca say it is working 24/7 to make up the time and deliver the quantities the EU wanted. It says its contract with the EU – as with the UK – was always on a ‘best effort’ basis, because it was starting from scratch to deliver unprecedented amounts of a vaccine for no profit.

AstraZeneca is not blaming the EU. But it does not understand why it is being painted as the ‘bad guy’ given that if the deal had happened in June, when Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy wanted it done, most of these supply issues would already have been sorted. A pro-EU source at the company says, ‘I understand Brexit better now.’

PS According to AstraZeneca, the EU claim that it pays less than the UK for each vaccine dose, and that is why the company is ‘working harder for the UK than for the EU’, is ‘completely incorrect’. The company reportedly offers the same price to all buyers, wherever they are in the world, subject to small adjustments due to local costs.

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