The European Union failed to resolve its row with AstraZeneca Plc over vaccine supplies, raising the risk of additional delays to the bloc’s sluggish inoculation campaign and putting the drugmaker on a collision course with 27 governments.
“We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule and request a clear plan from AstraZeneca for the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved for the first quarter,” EU health chief Stella Kyriakides said after a virtual meeting with Astra’s chief executive on Wednesday. “We will work with the company to find solutions and deliver vaccines rapidly for EU citizens.”
The root of the dispute is Astra’s decision to prioritize the U.K. over the EU for its limited vaccine supplies following a Belgian production glitch, in what Brussels claims to be a breach of contractual commitments.
The quarrel could add another thorn to the tumultuous post-Brexit ties between Britain and the EU.
The bloc accuses Astra of using European funding intended for the development of manufacturing capacity to ramp up production in its U.K. plants, and now prioritizing British deliveries. Member states are furious with the company, according to diplomats familiar with a meeting of government envoys in Brussels earlier on Wednesday.
Publicly, Kyriakides struck a more upbeat tone, describing the meeting as “constructive.” A spokesman for the company used the same word to describe the discussion.
However, speaking privately, an EU official made clear great dissatisfaction remains and that while the bloc did not want an escalation in the tensions, much work is still needed to break the impasse.
“We’re very confident of our contracts, we’re very confident of our supply,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a televised press conference. Shortages in the EU “are really a matter for our EU friends and the companies concerned,” he added.
The 27-nation bloc reacted with anger to the news that Astra will deliver fewer vaccines than it had promised, and vowed to establish a mechanism that could potentially impose hurdles on exports of the life-saving shots from European production facilities.
The proposal, expected later this week, risks triggering a wave of protectionist measures that could disrupt supply chains with billions of people waiting for the shots necessary before the global economy can return to some kind of normality.
Having delivered just 2.2 shots for every 100 people, the EU lags way behind both the U.S. and the U.K., and is several months away from immunizing a sufficient number of people to allow a return to normalcy. While the impact of the Astra setback is still unclear, any further delays in vaccinations could prolong damaging lockdowns in a continent struggling to emerge from the steepest recession in living memory.
The dispute could also reverberate across the world, as governments race to stop the spread of the pandemic, before a multiplying number of mutations renders vaccines less effective against Covid-19.
“Contractual obligations must be met, vaccines must be delivered to EU citizens,” Kyriakides said.
— With assistance by Milda Seputyte, and Alberto Nardelli
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