What the EU’s conflict with AstraZeneca means for the fight against COVID-19

Article by Lea Schiller

On Friday the 29th of January, the EMA (European Medicines Agency) approved AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for use, making it the third vaccine to be used in the EU’s joint effort to vaccinate the bloc. But for this one, tensions were already brewing before the EMA gave its green light. AstraZeneca cut the expected quantity of vaccines to be delivered by 60%, citing problems in a factory in Belgium – but the European Commission insists on received what it has been promised. In a time where the relationship between the EU and the UK is already being put to the test by Brexit, and a time that has shown us a worse side of the pandemic than ever before, we cannot let this become a test of political strength – after all, thousands of lives depend on a sensible solution.

How AstraZeneca sees the debate

According to AstraZeneca, the conflict originated both in the contract and with the point in time that it was made (Collins & Herszenhorn, 2021). The EU originally signed the contract in August, three months after the UK placed their order with the company. This led to a situation in which AstraZeneca was already in a contract that it was committed to fulfil – namely, the 100 million doses it had promised to deliver to the UK. The contract with the EU therefore, 400 million doses in total with 80 million to be delivered by March, only states the company would make its “best effort” to deliver the vaccines (Collins & Herszenhorn, 2021). It’s the phrase AstraZeneca is now using to argue that they technically are not in breach of their contract.

The EU’s response

AstraZeneca’s announcement to cut vaccine delivery sparked outrage rarely seen from the European Commission. Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s Commissioner for Health, stated that AstraZeneca’s “best effort” argument is “neither correct nor acceptable” (Deutsche Welle, 2021). The contract, which was made public on Friday, mentions production sites in the UK – sites which the EU helped expand last year in a costly effort to increase the amount of vaccines these factories can produce (Herszenhorn & Deutsch, 2021). The EU now demands these factories be used to make up for the shortfall of those inside the Union. And it doesn’t stop there. The EU also signalled that it found AstraZeneca’s reasoning for the delay insufficient, with Kyriakides saying, “the European Union wants to know exactly which doses have been produced by AstraZeneca and where exactly so far and if or to whom they have been delivered” (Deutsch, Eder & Herszenhorn, 2021).

The fallout

AstraZeneca eventually offered the EU 8 million extra shots, which the EU was not satisfied with (Guarascio & Siebold, 2021). Instead, it initiated export controls on vaccines made in the bloc. In practice, every vaccine export will have to be authorized before it can be shipped to any country outside of the EU. These authorisations are not expected to be given should the supply of vaccines within the bloc be threatened by exports (Wishart & Baschuk, 2021).  The rest of the world was not pleased – Boris Johnson as well as the WTO called on the EU to rethink its decision, to prevent vaccine nationalism from spreading all over the globe. But most gravely, the export controls endangered the open border between the EU and Northern Ireland, which was guaranteed in the Brexit deal and a sensitive agreement to begin with. Mere hours later, the EU announced it would not introduce checks at the Irish border – averting a possible crisis.

What does this conflict mean for the fight against the pandemic?

This situation shows how the vaccination effort goes beyond a mere public health operation. For the EU, it also means a test of the trust citizens have in the Union, while for the UK, it is an important chance to prove itself after Brexit. However, with millions of lives on the line, this is not the time to play the blame game and alienate one another – what is most important now is to find solutions to the vaccine shortages. The current conflict between AstraZeneca and the EU could put this goal in jeopardy. Both sides need to engage with the other constructively. Otherwise, we could lose focus on the actual goal: stopping the pandemic. 
 

person in brown long sleeve shirt with white bandage on right hand
photo by Steven Cornfield published on Unsplash

References

Collins, H., & Herszenhorn, D.M. (2021, January 27). AstraZeneca CEO: EU vaccine contract is ‘not a commitment’. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/astrazeneca-ceo-eu-vaccine-contract-is-not-a-commitment/

Coronavirus: EU expresses dismay over AstraZeneca vaccine delays. (2021, January 27). Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-eu-expresses-dismay-over-astrazeneca-vaccine-delays/a-56358916

Deutsch, J., Eder, F., & Herszenhorn, D.M. (2021, January 26). Enraged at AstraZeneca over shortfall, EU calls for vaccine export controls. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/enraged-at-astrazeneca-over-shortfall-eu-calls-for-vaccine-export-controls/

Guarascio, F., & Siebold, S. (2021, January 29). EU holds out for more after AstraZeneca offered 8 million extra COVID-19 shots. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-eu-astrazeneca/eu-holds-out-for-more-after-astrazeneca-offered-8-million-extra-covid-19-shots-idUSKBN29Y0UL?il=0

Herszenhorn, D.M., & Deutsch, J. (2021, January 29). Redacted contract fails to clear up EU-AstraZeneca vaccine row. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-astrazeneca-coronavirus-vaccine-contract-dispute/

Wishart, I., & Baschuk, B. (2021, January 29). EU Risks Global Vaccine Battle With Bold Export Control Plan. Bloomberg. Retrieved from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-29/eu-sets-vaccine-export-controls-risking-global-battle-for-doses