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Q&A: Why is the EU locked in a row with AstraZeneca over its Covid-19 vaccine?


The EU and the drugmaker have been engaged in a public spat for over a week due to initial delivery numbers being 50pc less than anticipated.

The EU and the drugmaker have been engaged in a public spat for over a week due to initial delivery numbers being 50pc less than anticipated.

The EU and the drugmaker have been engaged in a public spat for over a week due to initial delivery numbers being 50pc less than anticipated.

It was announced the EU had triggered an article of the Northern Ireland Protocol that would allow it to block vaccines made within the region from entering Northern Ireland.

Before the EU Commission backtracked on the decision to trigger Article 16, there was widespread panic, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin holding emergency talks over the phone with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in an attempt to reverse the decision.

The EU eventually issued a statement saying the Commission will “ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected”.

This was the latest instalment of a week-long spat between the EU and the drug maker AstraZeneca over vaccine doses.

But how did it end up here?

Why did this argument start?

In August last year, the EU and AstraZeneca reached an initial agreement that the EU would receive 300 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine once it had been authorised for use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), with an option to purchase 100 million more if needed.

As Ireland is entitled to 1.1pc of all vaccines purchased by the EU, we are in line to receive 3.3m doses, or enough to vaccinate 1.65m people.

The first batch of the vaccine, 80m doses, was due for delivery throughout the first quarter of 2021. Here’s where the problems began.

Late last week, AstraZeneca released a statement that confirmed it would have to cut the initial delivery to the EU by nearly 60pc - from 80m doses to just 31m. The European Commission was not happy.

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Why did AstraZeneca cut the supply?

The drug maker said it was experiencing “reduced yields” from its manufacturing plants in Europe, meaning the initial “targets” would not be met.

The EU are arguing these were not targets, these were “contractually binding” agreed upon commitments. The CEO of AstraZeneca disagreed.

“Our contract is not a contractual commitment, it’s a best effort,” Pascal Soriot said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Republica. “Basically, we said we’re going to try our best.” The EU did not see it like this.

What did the EU do next?

The EU, through Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for health and food safety, rejected AstraZeneca’s explanation for the delays.

“Not being able to ensure manufacturing capacity is against the letter and spirit of our agreement.”

Kyriakides said AstraZeneca should bolster the EU delivery with supplies from factories it operates in the UK if it cannot meet its commitment through EU manufacturing.

The company says its contract with the UK for vaccine supplies prevented this. The British government refused to publish its agreement with AstraZeneca for “national security” reasons.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen further publicly pressured AstraZeneca by saying the contract contained “binding orders” rather than loose commitments.

Where are we now?

The EMA approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for all over the ages of 18 on Friday afternoon, meaning the vaccination rollout can begin in Ireland and elsewhere. Ireland expects to receive its first delivery of the vaccine in 10 days. As a gesture of good faith, AstraZeneca moved forward its first delivery dates to the EU by one week. The batch is expected to be roughly 300,000 vaccines. The argument is far from over, though.

Yesterday, the EU Commission published a redacted version of its contract with AstraZeneca which the EU say clearly shows that the UK plants are “contractually obliged” to manufacture doses of the vaccine for the EU should the European plants not be able to meet demands.

As a response to the drug maker’s refusal to agree to EU assertions within the contract, the EU has threatened to block supplies of the vaccine being produced in Europe from being shipped to other regions. Hence, where the triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol came in before it was quickly reversed.

How will this affect Ireland’s vaccination timeline?

One of the Government’s grand ambitions was to have 700,000 people fully vaccinated by the end of March. This included all healthcare workers, staff and residents of nursing homes and all over the age of 70 that wanted a vaccine.

The plan was to administer large quantities of the AstraZeneca vaccine via GPs to people aged over 70 starting next month, beginning with those aged over 85 and working down in five year blocks. Now that Ireland is likely to receive 300,000 less doses than anticipated in quarter one, it is expected 550,000 of the 700,000 target will be vaccinated before the end of March.

This will hold up Ireland’s ambition to offer everyone in the country a vaccine in the next eight months.

Good news for Ireland’s vaccination plan, though, was that Johnson & Johnson’s one dose vaccine was found to be effective against Covid-19 in a global trial with 44,000 participants. The vaccine was proven to be 66pc effective globally, and effective against the dominant UK variant in Ireland. This vaccine should come on-stream in late March and April.

How the row between the EU and AstraZeneca will end is unclear, but it appears the Government looks set to work with the limited supplies for now, which could mean restrictions of some form extend into the summer against all best intentions.

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