AstraZeneca PLC will deliver 9 million additional vaccine doses to the European Union in the first quarter of this year as the bloc tries to get its chaotic inoculation drive on track.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced Sunday on Twitter that the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker would start deliveries one week earlier than scheduled and expand its manufacturing. In fact, the company said last week that it would provide a million shy of that amount. Either way, that brings the total to 40 million, only about half of what the EU had expected from Astra through March.
AstraZeneca triggered a crisis Jan. 22 when it said that problems at a plant in Belgium meant deliveries to the EU this quarter would be significantly curtailed. As a result, the bloc, which came under fire due to the slow rollout of national vaccination programs, said it would begin restricting the export of vaccines if drugmakers fail to meet delivery targets.
The episode has devolved into a bruising blame game that has pitted the 27-nation EU against the heft of the pharmaceutical industry, and has triggered fears that a wave of vaccine nationalism could hinder efforts to fight the pandemic. The bloc’s faltering vaccination program and its effort to rectify early mistakes have drawn criticism from many sides, including from companies such as AstraZeneca that it needs to combat the COVID-19 crisis.
“We want 70% of the grownup population to be vaccinated by the end of the summer,” von der Leyen said in an interview Sunday with German broadcaster ZDF. She added that supplies should increase significantly in the second quarter when Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies overcome early hurdles.
A spokesman for Astra declined to comment on the additional deliveries.
Astra Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said Friday that the company was trying to source more supplies from around the world to increase deliveries to the EU, adding that “we are working 24/7 to increase this capacity.”
So far, the EU’s 27 governments have administered just 2.6 doses of vaccine per 100 people, far behind the 12.5 doses in the U.K. and 8.8 in the U.S. The slow rollout has put the EU on the defensive and cast serious doubt over the bloc’s ability to meet its ambitious inoculation targets.
German authorities are also under pressure to kick-start a vaccine program that was off to a slow start and faces supply shortages. In an effort to speed things up, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday will meet with regional leaders and representatives from pharmaceutical companies, as well as the EU.
The EU’s drug regulator cleared the COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford on Friday. It’ll be the third vaccine available in the EU after shots from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., potentially easing a shortage of shots as the EU trails the U.K. and the U.S. in vaccinations.
In the ZDF interview, Von der Leyen also said she spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that both Astra production plants would deliver to Europe. “Our enemy is the virus and the pharmaceutical industry is part of the solution,” she said.
News of the extra doses came shortly after the EU said it’s taking steps to bolster its pandemic preparedness, citing the risk posed by COVID-19 variants that reduce the efficacy of vaccines.
Von der Leyen on Sunday held a video call with chief executives of pharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca and Moderna to discuss how vaccines could be more rapidly deployed, manufactured and approved in the future.
“The pandemic highlighted that manufacturing capacities are a limiting factor. It is essential to address these challenges,” the commission said in a statement after the call. It added that “the emergence of variants of concern raises the imminent threat of reduced efficacy of recently approved vaccines.”
Sunday’s discussion between von der Leyen and the pharmaceutical executives focused on the EU’s longer term health strategy and preparedness. Inspired by early stumbles in curbing the spread of the coronavirus last year, the push for a common approach aims to guard against a patchwork of national responses to any future health scares.
The discussion follows proposals by the commission last November to beef up the EU’s health agencies, after the pandemic overwhelmed the continent’s hospitals and left countries struggling with supply shortages. The plans included giving more clout to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency.
Also included in the meeting were executives from BioNTech SE, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, CureVac NV and Sanofi, according to the statement.
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