The French government has sought to reassure the public that it is still aiming to vaccinate 15 million vulnerable people against Covid by the summer, as the row continues over AstraZeneca EU delivery delays.
Government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told news service FranceInter: “At this stage what we are planning for the AstraZeneca deliveries are 2.5 million doses, and discussions are ongoing with them to clarify what these deliveries will be.
“Our objective before the summer is that 15 million vulnerable people [will be vaccinated]. We are doing everything we can to maintain this.”
It comes after AstraZeneca announced that it would be able to deliver less than 40% of the 100 million vaccine doses promised to Europe in the first quarter of 2021.
Europe and the UK are now at the centre of a row, as AstraZeneca has so far not announced the same delivery delays for the UK.
AstraZeneca announced - just two weeks before the vaccine was set to receive EU approval - that it would need to drastically reduce the delivery amounts agreed for the European market. It said that this was due to a “drop in production” at its Belgian factory.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is already being administered in the UK, with authorisation for its use in the EU set to be confirmed tomorrow by the European Medicine Agency.
The European Commission has so far stood firm against the firm’s announcement, and said that it sees no reason for the EU to receive fewer doses than planned, especially when the UK’s dose supply so far appears unaffected.
Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “[AstraZeneca's] UK factories are part of the pre-order contract, and that is why they must deliver. The idea that the company will not be held to its promises is neither correct nor acceptable.”
AstraZeneca and the European Commission signed a contract in August 2020, through which the EU committed to buying 400 million doses, if the vaccine was proven effective. The EU promised to pay the company €336 million, to help fund its manufacturing.
There are two factories in the UK, two in Europe (Belgium and Germany) and one in the US that would be on stand-by in case of any problems.
Ms Kyriakides said: “AstraZeneca was selected based on its capacity to manufacture, and not on the reality of a vaccine that was, at the time, still hypothetical. The risk was taken on the vaccine, not the production capacity. So AstraZeneca must produce the appropriate doses.”
But on Tuesday this week, CEO of the group, Pascal Soriot, said: “The UK agreement was made in June , three months before the European agreement. London stipulated that the doses coming from the UK production line would go first to the UK.
“The EU wanted, more or less, the same number of doses as the UK, but it only said that three months afterwards. We therefore said that we would do our best, but we are not going to contractually promise.”
This means that the company’s UK-manufactured doses are going to the UK first, and that the company is seeking to deliver the rest to the EU, as much as possible, but nothing more.
Doubts over AstraZeneca explanations
A senior European source told newspaper Le Monde: “The explanations from AstraZeneca are not satisfactory. They vary hour by hour, from one speaker to another.”
A meeting between EU Commission representatives and AstraZeneca - including its CEO - did not appear to resolve the issue, even though Ms Kyriakides said the meeting was held in a “constructive tone”.
French MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir said: “We must ensure that AstraZeneca does not favour the highest bidders, especially the UK, which is paying more for its vaccines than the EU.
“Is it really a problem of production? Has [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson banned export from British factories? Is this a legal issue? In any case, we have channels [we can use].”
Yesterday, the Belgian national medicine and health agency sent experts to the Belgian AstraZeneca factory to evaluate the situation, and the Commission is set to put plans in place to authorise vaccine exports, and to ensure that doses produced in Europe are exported to the EU and not elsewhere.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that AstraZeneca has so far met its targets to deliver two million doses per week (for a total of 100 million doses) to the UK.
He said: “We are very confident in our supply, [and] we are very confident in our contracts, and we are moving forward on that basis.”
A European source told Le Monde that the EU had been counting on AstraZeneca to deliver a boost in the vaccine campaign.
The source said: “AstraZeneca is the first mass vaccine that we are expecting. They have experience and production capacity.”
AstraZeneca is not the only vaccine manufacturer to have announced delays - Pfizer/BioNTech has also announced a delay, but in contrast has said that it will aim to fulfil its delivery promises by mid-February.
Best-case scenario, the EU is expecting that 150 million doses from both laboratories will be delivered by the end of March, and to have vaccinated 75 million people.