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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BRUSSELS — A war of words between the European Union and AstraZeneca escalated on Wednesday as the two sides argued in public over coronavirus vaccine delays that threaten the bloc's fragile recovery from the pandemic.
The dispute began on Monday when EU officials said they had been told by AstraZeneca (AZN) that the company intended to supply "considerably fewer" doses in the coming weeks than had been agreed because of production problems. The European Commission has ordered 400 million doses on behalf of EU member states and is poised to start rolling them out across the bloc once the vaccine is approved, possibly this week.
"Pharmaceutical companies and vaccine developers have moral, societal, and contractual responsibilities which they need to uphold," EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters on Wednesday. "The view that the company is not obliged to deliver (vaccines) ... is neither correct nor acceptable."
"We are in a pandemic. We lose people every day. These are not numbers, they are not statistics, these are persons, with families, with friends and colleagues," she added.
Germany marked one year since the virus arrived on Wednesday, with the country showing no signs of reduced infections. Portugal reported a record number of daily deaths in the past 24 hours. Strict lockdowns are in force in countries around the bloc.
The harsh rebuke from the European Union came after AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said the company had agreed to make its "best-effort" to deliver the doses EU countries had ordered but was not contractually committed to a schedule. In a statement, AstraZeneca said it still intended to deliver tens of millions of doses to EU countries in February and March.
Soriot told the Italian newspaper la Repubblica on Tuesday that AstraZeneca was not able to guarantee the timing of EU deliveries because countries such as the United Kingdom were quicker to finalize orders. The "head start" also gave AstraZeneca's operation in the United Kingdom more time to resolve the kind of supply chain issues that are now affecting EU deliveries, the CEO said.
"We've had also teething issues like this in the UK supply chain. But 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," he said.
EU officials have declined to specify the scale of the vaccine shortfall. But the shock development came as they were still trying to assess the impact of Pfizer (PFE) slowing deliveries of the vaccine it developed with BioNTech last week while a manufacturing facility in Belgium was upgraded.
The twin delays produced a sharp backlash across the region, where governments are already under pressure over a slow vaccine rollout. The highly unusual public spat with AstraZeneca now threatens to sour relations between Brussels and one of its major vaccine suppliers.
EU officials are threatening to tighten controls on vaccine exports, and Italy has warned that it could take legal action. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen turned up the heat on Tuesday, saying the bloc "means business."
"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 honor their obligations," she said during a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
In his interview with La Repubblica and other major European newspapers, Soriot acknowledged that his company had experienced problems at one large manufacturing facility in Europe. He said the early phase of vaccine production is often "complicated," and the company is "basically two months behind" where it wanted to be.
"Would I like to do better? Of course. But, you know, if we deliver in February what we are planning to deliver, it's not a small volume," said Soriot. "We are planning to deliver millions of doses to Europe, it is not small."
He also outlined crucial differences in the agreements the company has with the United Kingdom and the European Union. — Courtesy CNN
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