AstraZeneca defends vaccine distribution plan amid EU supply delays

Kalila Sangster
·3-min read
Practice Nurse Tina Sutton draws off a single dose from a vial
A nurse prepares a does of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Pontcae Medical Practice in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK. Photo: PA

AstraZeneca (AZN.L) chief executive Pascal Soriot has defended the firm’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine across the EU amid supply delay issues.

Soriot said that AstraZeneca were working “24/7 to fix the very many issues of production of the vaccine,” in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

He said production was “basically two months behind where we wanted to be.”

AstraZeneca on Friday (22 January) announced it planned to cut deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine to the EU by 60% to 31 million doses in the first quarter of the year. It blamed production problems, meaning the number of initial available doses would be lower than expected.

The Swedish-British firm was expected to deliver around 80 million doses to the 27 EU nations by the end of March.

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Soriot said the EU's late decision to sign contracts had given limited time to sort out supply issues.

A contract with the UK had been signed three months before the one with the EU, giving more time for “teething issues” to be figured out, according to Soriot.

“So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced,” he said.

Issues around “scaling up” vaccine production at two production sites, in the Netherlands and Belgium, are affecting supply he said.

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“It's complicated, especially in the early phase where you have to really sort out all sorts of issues,” he told La Repubblica.

“Would I like to do better? Of course. 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 of doses to Europe, it is not small.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved yet in the EU. But the bloc signed a deal in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more.

The EU had hoped that delivery would start as soon as approval, with some 80 million doses arriving in the bloc by March.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is already being used in the UK.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to give its approval for use in the EU at the end of January.

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Europe also ordered 600 million doses of the Pfizer (PFE)/BioNTech (BNTX) vaccine, which is already being used across the 27 countries.

Pfizer-BioNTech said last week it was delaying shipments for the next few weeks due to a need to increase capacity at its plant in Belgium.

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said companies making coronavirus vaccines in the bloc would have to “provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries,” according to the BBC.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, at this year’s virtual World Economic Forum (WEF), usually held in Davos, said: “Europe invested billions to help develop the world's first COVID-19 vaccines. And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations.”

AstraZeneca shares were down 0.5% in early trading in London on Wednesday.

Chart: Yahoo Finance UK
Chart: Yahoo Finance UK

Earlier this week, UK health secretary Matt Hancock noted vaccine “supply is right” but did not comment on this further.

He said in the last week the UK has seen 37,258 cases of coronavirus, on average each day. The NHS is “still under intense pressure” across all parts of the country with 37,899 people in UK hospitals with COVID-19 — including 4,076 on ventilators.

He said the UK has vaccinated 78.7% of over 80s, or “almost four in five” of everyone aged over 80.

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