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EU demands access to U.K.-made AstraZeneca vaccine shots as row over shortages intensifies

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By Callum Keown, and Lina Saigol

The row between AstraZeneca and the European Union intensified on Wednesday amid a shortage of vaccine doses in Europe.

The EU’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides urged the U.K.-Swedish drug company to supply the bloc with more doses of its vaccine from U.K. plants as frustrations mount over the bloc’s vaccine rollout.

It comes after AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/203048482/delayed UK:AZN +0.66% , which developed its vaccine with the University of Oxford, warned on Friday that it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its contractual obligations with the bloc and deliver the 100 million doses promised by the end of March, due to problems at a manufacturing site. The bloc could instead end up receiving 31 million doses in that time, 60% less than initially agreed, an EU official told Reuters. In the U.K., AstraZeneca has pledged to deliver 2 million doses a week by mid-February.

AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot defended the rollout of the vaccine on Wednesday, saying that his team was working “24/7 to fix the very many issues of production of the vaccine.”

Read:   Vaccine nationalism: Germany suggests EU should restrict the export of Pfizer’s vaccine

In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica , Soriot said production was “basically two months behind where we wanted to be,” adding that the EU’s late decision to sign contracts had given limited time to iron out supply issues. “We’ve also had teething issues like this in the U.K. supply chain. But the U.K. contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the U.K. we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced,” he said. 

However, Kyriakides said the EU had “serious concerns” over AstraZeneca’s plan to supply “considerably fewer” doses than originally agreed.

“U.K. factories are part of our advanced purchase agreement and that is why they have to deliver,” Kyriakides told a news conference, adding that two of the four factories from which AstraZeneca has committed to providing vaccines to the EU are in Britain, Reuters reported .

On Monday, EU officials said that pharmaceutical companies producing COVID vaccines on EU territory would be required to register in advance exports of doses to third countries. The European Medicines Agency is hoping to be able to authorize the AstraZeneca vaccine by Friday.

AstraZeneca said in a statement on its website on Wednesday: “Each supply chain was developed with input and investment from specific countries or international organizations based on the supply agreements, including our agreement with the European Commission.”

It added: “As each supply chain has been set up to meet the needs of a specific agreement, the vaccine produced from any supply chain is dedicated to the relevant countries or regions and makes use of local manufacturing wherever possible.”

Read:   COVID vaccine from Sanofi and GSK is delayed, triggering uncertainty ahead of Europe’s mass inoculation campaigns

The EU’s vaccine shortage problems were eased slightly on Wednesday, as Sanofi stepped in to help manufacture millions of doses of the COVID shot developed by rivals BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX +2.15% and Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE -0.52% .

In an unusual move, the French pharmaceutical group said on Wednesday that it will give Germany-based BioNTech  access to a production facility in Frankfurt to produce more than  125 million doses  of its vaccine in Europe.

However, those doses will begin to be delivered this summer and won’t solve the bloc’s more immediate issues.

“We are very conscious that the earlier vaccine doses are available, the more lives can potentially be saved,” said Paul Hudson, chief executive of Sanofi /zigman2/quotes/206928357/delayed FR:SAN +0.75% , in a statement. “Although vaccination campaigns have started around the world, the ability to get shots into arms is being limited by lower than expected supplies and delayed approval timelines owing to production shortages,” he added.

BioNTech and Pfizer have said they can produce  2 billion doses in 2021 , but demand has outstripped supply as mass immunization campaigns have started in countries worldwide, including the U.K., the U.S. and Europe.

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