The European Union has launched legal action against AstraZeneca over the pharmaceutical giant’s alleged failure to respect its contract for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to the bloc.
The British-Swedish company’s vaccine was envisaged as a central part of Europe’s mass immunisation campaign, and a linchpin in the global strategy to get coronavirus vaccines to poorer countries because it is being cheaper and easier to use than shots produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
But Brussels and the business have been at loggerheads over an alleged shortfall of deliveries, a division that has in part hobbled early efforts to roll out jabs within the bloc.
European Commission spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker said the move to pursue legal action against AstraZeneca was launched last Friday “on the basis of breaches of the advance purchase agreement.”
De Keersmaecker said that “some terms of the contract have not been respected” and that “the company has not been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure a timely delivery of doses.”
He noted that all 27 EU member states backed the move, which comes as several European countries grapple with a third wave.
“We want to make sure there is a speedy delivery of a sufficient number of doses that European citizens are entitled to and which have been promised on the basis of the contract,” De Keersmaecker said.
In response, AstraZeneca said the EU’s legal action was without merit as it pledged to defend itself in court.
“AstraZeneca has fully complied with the Advance Purchase Agreement with the European Commission,” the company said in a statement.
It added that deliveries were improving following an “unprecedented year of scientific discovery, very complex negotiations, and manufacturing challenges.”
“We are making progress addressing the technical challenges and our output is improving, but the production cycle of a vaccine is very long which means these improvements take time to result in increased finished vaccine doses,” AstraZeneca said.
Under AstraZeneca’s contract with the EU, the company had committed to making its “best reasonable efforts” to deliver 180 million vaccine doses to the bloc in the second quarter of this year, for a total of 300 million in the period from December to June.
But AstraZeneca said in a statement on March 12 it would aim to deliver only one-third of that amount by the end of June – and about 70 million in the second quarter.
A week later, the European Commission sent a legal letter to the company, the first step of a formal procedure to resolve disputes.
In a further sign of its irritation, the EU later announced it had already forgone another 100 million shots that it could have bought under its agreement with the company.
The EU now relies mostly on the Pfizer-BioNTech jab for its immunisation campaign.
The contract between AstraZeneca and the EU was signed by the European Commission on behalf of the bloc’s member states last August.
The legal case will need to be resolved by Belgian courts.
AstraZeneca’s French-Australian boss Pascal Soriot has previously argued that his company’s contract with the EU binds it only to a “best reasonable efforts” clause.
But the European Commission says the rest of the contract shows greater legal responsibility than that.
EU diplomats and politicians have pointed out that the company has largely delivered promised doses to former EU member state the United Kingdom, where AstraZeneca is headquartered.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said thelegal battle was the latest step of an “ongoing saga” between AstraZeneca and the EU.
“This just adds to the already shaken and damaged reputation of the AstraZeneca vaccine among the public in the EU,” she said, referring to falling public confidence over the vaccine due to fears of blood clots as a rare side effect.
Some member states have halted use of the shot among certain age groups despite the EU’s own medicines agency insisting its benefits outweigh any risks.
“The reputation of this vaccine has been damaged at a time when it is so necessary to try and stop the pandemic in the bloc,” said Butler.
Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new vaccine contract with BioNTech-Pfizer, for 1.8 billion doses for the 2021-23 period.
She said the deal will ensure doses for booster shots, vaccines adapted to new variants, and, potentially, shots for children and teenagers.
Von der Leyen said that the EU, home to around 450 million people, has “already passed 123 million vaccinations” and is on track to have vaccinated 70 percent of all adults by July – a level understood to support her immunity.
Previously, the target had been September.