The vaccination rollout in the EU and France has been dealt a blow after AstraZeneca announced new delivery delays due to export restrictions. A third of the doses scheduled to be used in France’s vaccination plan March-April are AstraZeneca.
France’s vaccine rollout depends heavily on the vaccine because it is easier to distribute than the other two currently used as it can be stored at 2 to 8°C, and thus does not require specialised fridges.
The Swedish-British group said that deliveries in the first quarter of the year to the EU (so up to the end of March) would be reduced again and deliveries in the second quarter would “very likely” also be affected.
In a statement, it said: “AstraZeneca regrets to announce a drop in deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to the European Union despite our relentless work to speed up supply.”
It blamed “export restrictions” for vaccines made outside of the EU, after production difficulties meant the group reverted to use factories outside the EU in an attempt to fulfil demand.
Around 30 million doses are now expected to be delivered to the EU in the first quarter. This is less than the 40 million promised by CEO Pascal Soriot at the end of January.
AstraZeneca's supply difficulties were already known, but they are expected to continue until at least the end of June.
Only 100 million doses will now be available for delivery in the first quarter of the year (30 million in the first quarter and 70 million in the second), out of the 120 million planned, reports FranceInfo.
AstraZeneca has agreed to deliver 300 million doses to the EU. But in January, the group reduced its delivery objectives for the first quarter of the year, citing a “yield” issue at the Belgian factory of one of its subcontractors, Novasept.
The European Commission yesterday declined to say how many doses of the AstraZeneca were now expected to arrive in the EU, saying that it was continuing discussions between the group and with EU member states.
The company said that it was “working with the European Commission and member states to resolve the procurement difficulties”, and said it was “confident that the productivity of its procurement chain would continue to improve in the EU, and contribute to protecting millions of Europeans against the virus”.
The European Commission says it is still aiming for 70% of EU citizens to have been vaccinated by the end of the summer.
France is counting on the AstraZeneca vaccine to continue its vaccination rollout strategy, despite ongoing controversy surrounding it.
Prime Minister Jean Castex has said that the vaccine is “effective” and that it should be “used to the full”. On March 4, he announced that France was set to receive 22.1 million vaccine doses in March-April (versus the 7 million delivered in January and February) of which a third was set to be from AstraZeneca.
Health Minister Olivier Véran said last week that “there is no reason to suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine” in France, despite reports of blood clotting issues in other EU countries.
France is scheduled to receive 1.6 million doses of the vaccine this weekend, with GPs, pharmacies, nurses, and midwives set to begin administering doses from tomorrow.
A drop in AstraZeneca deliveries has already required Germany to temporarily suspend a pilot project to distribute vaccinations through GPs, in Thuringia, which has the highest incidence of Covid cases in the country.
The project had been set to begin before the end of March, especially for older people living at home.
Thuringia’s health minister, Heike Werner, said that the drop in deliveries was “absolutely unacceptable”.
The European Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, said this week: “I see some effort, but I don’t see ‘best efforts’. This is not enough from AstraZeneca.”
The problem has partly been caused by the United States, which is stockpiling millions of doses of the AstraZeneca jab, but cannot yet use them, as the vaccine has not yet been approved for use in the US.
AstraZeneca spokesperson Gonzalo Viña said that he had pleaded with the federal administration to release and export these vaccines to the EU, in favour of the European Commission, but The New York Times reported that President Joe Biden has so far refused the request.
It comes as the AstraZeneca jab continues to prompt uncertainties.
Austria has suspended administration of the ABV5300 AstraZeneca batch (the same as the one delivered and used in France), after two reports of severe blood clotting, and one death amongst those who had received it.
But France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran has said that there is no need to fear the vaccine, and that in France, the ANSM has noted “one case of thrombosis” out of the 454,545 AstraZeneca doses administered so far, which was not connected to the latest AstraZeneca batch.
This is lower than the national risk of thrombosis without the vaccine, which is currently at one in 300,000 people in France.
Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Bulgaria have temporarily suspended administration of the vaccine pending investigations into reports of blood clotting issues in some people after vaccination. No links between the cases and the vaccine have yet been established.
The World Health Organisation said again this week that “there is no reason not to use” the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the European Medicines Agency has also said it recommends its use.
AstraZeneca has said that there is no “heightened risk” of blood clots due to the vaccine.