A bottle containing the Oxford / AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is seen at the Al-Abbas Islamic Centre, which has been converted into a temporary vaccination centre in Birmingham, central England on Jan 21, 2021. (DARREN STAPLES / AFP)
The boss of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has vowed to resist pressure from the European Union to divert doses of its COVID-19 vaccine intended for the United Kingdom, following problems with supplies to the 27-member bloc.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of the drugmaker, said that the UK gets priority as it signed its contract first.
Amid anger among EU regulators, there were even reports that the company had pulled out of a planned meeting over the issue, although this was later denied.
Vaccines by Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech, and AstraZeneca, with Oxford University, have been approved and are being used in the UK. The EU has so far only approved and used the Pfizer jab, with the AstraZeneca one expected to be given the green light this week.
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AstraZeneca has indicated that its first-quarter supply to the EU is likely to be around 60 percent less than was expected, because of production problems.
European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides on Wednesday called on AstraZeneca to live up to its contractual, societal and moral obligations.
"Let me be crystal clear: the 27 European Union member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments in our agreement," she told a news conference.
"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 that are all affected as well."
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech on Tuesday: "The EU and others helped with money to build research capacities and production facilities.
"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."
Italy's government, which has just seen Giuseppe Conte step down as prime minister, partly because of divisions caused by handling of the pandemic, wants to take Pfizer and AstraZeneca to court over supply problems.
"We are starting legal action to get the doses, not financial compensation," Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said at the weekend.
But Soriot rejected claims that his company was failing to honor its commitments. He told Italian newspaper La Repubblica: "The UK agreement was reached in June, three months before the European one. As you could imagine, the UK government said the supply coming out of the UK supply chain would go to the UK first. Basically, that's how it is."
He added that it was even possible that up to 30 million people could be vaccinated by March. Such a prospect would be hugely welcome news in a country that on Tuesday passed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. The UK's death toll had risen sharply from 50,000 in early November. In contrast, the EU has managed to vaccinate just 2 percent of people within the bloc.
The Daily Telegraph reports that Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands had all reached preliminary supply deals with AstraZeneca in June, but the European Commission insisted on one bloc-wide deal, which was not agreed for a further two months.
When asked if the EU had left it too late, Soriot replied: "I will not pass judgment on this. But I can only tell you the facts… the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal.
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"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."