Belgium’s federal medicines agency has launched an investigation into AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine production site near Brussels following a request from the European Commission, in a move that could escalate the row between the European Union and the drugmaker over AstraZeneca’s decision to deliver only 40% of the promised 80 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the bloc by the end of March.
- The first visit by Belgian regulators to AstraZeneca’s facility in Seneffe was completed on Wednesday and collected samples and records from the plant, the Guardian reported, citing the Belgian health ministry.
- The investigation into the plant was triggered by a request from the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, reportedly due to doubts over AstraZeneca’s explanation as to why it was only planning to deliver 31 million doses of the vaccine to the bloc’s nations by March-end, instead of the promised 80 million.
- The AstraZeneca shot has not yet been approved for emergency use by the European Medicines Agency but the approval is expected on Friday.
- While the vaccine maker has said that the reduced availability in Europe is due to a production problem at the Belgian site, the EU is investigating if AstraZeneca has diverted any doses produced in the EU, to the U.K.
- Despite delays in delivering the vaccine in Europe, AstraZeneca has assured the U.K. government — which helped develop the vaccine along with the University of Oxford — that it will be able to successfully fulfill its total order of 100 million shots.
In August, the EU signed a deal with AstraZeneca for a total of 300 million doses of its vaccine, with an option for 100 million more. 80 million of those doses were planned for delivery by the end of March but last week the company cut this number down to 31 million after reporting production delays at two of its plants in the Netherlands and Belgium. The cut back prompted an outcry from the EU which accused the drugmaker of giving the U.K. preferential treatment, where deliveries are on schedule. In an interview on Wednesday, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot pushed back against the EU’s assertion that the company was reneging on its contractual obligation, noting that in its agreement the company had only agreed to make its “best effort” to deliver a certain number of vaccine doses. Soriot also rejected demands from the EU to supply the bloc’s countries with vaccines from the U.K. plant to make up for the shortfall, saying that the U.K. government, which helped develop the vaccine, required shots produced in the country to stay in the U.K. before being exported elsewhere. Soriot also noted that the U.K.’s decision to sign a contract with AstraZeneca three months before the EU, allowed it to iron out early production glitches in Britain last year.
On Wednesday, the EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, rejected the drug maker’s argument and insisted that AstraZeneca should divert some of the doses made in the UK to make up for the shortfall. “We reject the logic of first come, first served. That may work in a butcher’s shop but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”
“Europe... wanted to be supplied more or less at the same time as the U.K., even though the contract was signed three months later,” Soriot said in his interview and noted that despite this, the EU, “is getting 17% of [AstraZeneca’s] global production in February… for 5% of the world population.” The bloc has previously called for equitable vaccine distribution around the world and has opposed “vaccine nationalism” where wealthy nations hoard supplies.