London: The European Union will seek on Wednesday to resolve a standoff with AstraZeneca Plc that threatens to keep its vaccination program in the slow lane, trigger a global spat over coronavirus shots, and prolong damaging lockdowns.
In a crunch call, officials representing national governments and the European Commission will demand the company meets its vaccine commitment. They will also seek "fundamental" information from executives about delivery plans for the first half of the year, according to an official with knowledge of the situation. The call is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Brussels time.
Delays in Belgium
The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker warned late last week of delays at a manufacturing plant in Belgium, which would deal a further blow to the continent's already-sluggish vaccination campaign. The EU responded with fury, vowing to monitor exports of shots, with Germany even signaling support for imposing limits on sales outside the EU.
The risk is that protectionist measures could spark retaliation by other countries, disrupting the flow of life-saving shots just as billions of people wait to be inoculated against a virus that's wreaked havoc on the global economy. Getting people vaccinated is the main hurdle to efforts by European governments to restore normality after 2020's record recession.
Astra Chief Executive Pascal Soriot pushed back against the EU in a newspaper interview published late Tuesday, saying the company signed a so-called best-effort agreement that doesn't specify a quantity. That's because EU insisted on receiving the vaccine about the same time as the U.K. despite putting in its order three months later.
But Soriot added that once Astra gets regulatory approval in Europe - expected within days - it will ship at least 3 million doses immediately, with a target of 17 million by February.
"Would I like to do better? Of course," he said in comments published in La Repubblica and other newspapers. "But, you know, if we deliver in February what we are planning to deliver, it's not a small volume. We are planning to deliver millions."
With so much riding on vaccinations, the bloc's executive arm is due to present its export monitoring proposal by the end of this week. An Astra spokesperson said the company hasn't diverted any products from the Europe supply chain.
Shots by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. are already authorized for use, though the EU lags way behind the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of the share of its population inoculated, according to Bloomberg's global vaccine tracker.
Governments across the bloc are eager to dodge the blame for the underwhelming performance, which could force them to prolong lockdowns. The measures have crippled industries from aviation to hospitality, and are causing growing discontent.
The Netherlands is facing its worst civil unrest in four decades because of its curfew, Belgium has banned everyone from entering or leaving the country without compelling reason as of Wednesday, while Ireland's strict lockdown is set to be extended until at least March 5.
European Medicines Agency Executive Director Emer Cooke said the organization is working with manufacturers to address vaccine delays and expressed hope the shortfalls will be "short-lived." Speaking to a European Parliament committee on Tuesday, Cooke also repeated the EMA's goal to decide this week on approval for Astra's vaccine.
While the details of the EU's plans to monitor exports have yet to be revealed, the World Trade Organization would not hinder the bloc from implementing temporary vaccine export restrictions or even an outright ban.
The WTO rulebook contains a specific exemption that allows nations to temporarily impose such measures to prevent or relieve critical shortages of essential products. There's also a broad exemption if the actions are deemed necessary to protect human life and health.
Protectionist measures could add another layer of complexity for pharmaceutical companies struggling to satisfy an unprecedented demand for vaccines.
But EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis dismissed the idea that a notification system for vaccine exports would limit them in any way.
"We're not planning to impose an export ban or export restrictions," Dombrovskis told reporters on Tuesday in Brussels. "Primarily it's a matter of transparency on the deliveries."