The Swedish-British pharmaceutical company Astra-Zeneca is facing repeated production bottlenecks. The company, which is already supplying significantly less of its Corona vaccine to the EU in the first quarter of this year than agreed in the supply contract signed in August 2020, is in danger of falling well short of its commitment in the second quarter as well. That emerged after a routine meeting of EU representatives with Astra-Zeneca managers on Tuesday evening. According to a widely confirmed report by Reuters agency, "less than 90 million" doses are expected for this period instead of the 180 million agreed in the contract. This would mean that the total supply volume until the end of June would amount to only 130 million doses instead of the 300 million initially promised.Â The EU however has only itself to blame for any friction with the company, due to its apparent smear campaign against the effectiveness of its vaccine.
At the end of January, the manufacturer had announced that it would be able to supply only 31 million doses of its vaccine to the EU in the first quarter instead of 80 as agreed in the contract. It later increased its commitment to 40 million. In December, for which 30 million had been agreed, the company had delivered nothing at all.
In the conversation on Tuesday evening, an Astra-Zeneca manager apparently inadvertently brought up the new figures. In a presentation on production planning for the current quarter, he also unintentionally presented the figures mentioned for the following quarter. The company sought clarification during the night. It is working to "increase productivity in the EU supply chain and leverage global production potential" to actually deliver 180 million doses to the EU, a spokesperson said. What is apparently meant by this is that the figure of 90 million that has been leaked to the world refers only to production in the EU - and that Astra-Zeneca intends to close the gap of another 90 million with production in non-EU countries, primarily in the UK. There are admittedly doubts about this in the EU, not least because the company has prioritized directing its first shipments to the UK and also because of the way the EU has behaved in recent weeks.
The EU Commission made no official comment on the matter on Wednesday. In contrast, sharp criticism came from the European Parliament. Esther de Lange, a Christian Democrat from the Netherlands, called it unacceptable that the company was constantly putting out new data. She said Astra-Zeneca was behaving like an "unreliable used car dealer." EU diplomats also said Astra-Zeneca has a credibility problem, although non-EU countries appear to dispute this. Quite a few EU leaders are therefore likely to express their displeasure with the slow deliveries at their video summit on the Covid pandemic this Thursday. The draft final declaration states that the companies are expected to keep their promises - a statement that is clearly and exclusively directed at Astra-Zeneca.
At the same time, the Commission is once again in the firing line, as the question is once again whether the EU can achieve its goal of having 70 percent of adults vaccinated by the end of the third quarter. For now, new Astra-Zeneca outages are not playing a major role because even the lower volumes of the vaccine cannot be vaccinated quickly in Germany. But if the company can't plug the hole in the second quarter, that may well impact the vaccination target.
The EU authority is bracing itself for further finger-wagging with Astra-Zeneca. "In any case, we are not relying on them to keep their promises completely," the commission says. The experience of the past few weeks has been too bad for that, they say. Brussels is spreading the word that the Swedish-British company is not ultimately needed to meet the vaccination target, because other manufacturers already delivered enough in the second quarter. This applies first of all to Moderna and Biontech/Pfizer, which could increase their production. In addition, Johnson & Johnson's vaccine will be approved around mid-March, and Curevac could be ready about a month later. Optimists in Brussels believe that 280 million EU citizens could be vaccinated by the end of June.
Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) is also confident. "With what production capacity is there, we can also expect significantly more volume in the second quarter," Spahn told the Bundestag on Wednesday. Four or six weeks ago, he said, the German states had understandably pointed out that they needed more doses from the EU and the federal government. "But now the vaccine doses are there, and I assume that we are gaining speed in the states." Instead of 140,000 or 150,000 shots a day as before, he said, vaccination centers could put up to 500,000. This, he said, would allow immunization of groups within Prioritization Level 1 that have been difficult to reach. In the meantime, the first people from level 2 have also received protection, such as police officers and other medical personnel, and soon also employees in elementary schools and kindergartens. Spahn's office is increasingly of the opinion that it is no longer the availability of the vaccine that causes difficulties, but rather the vaccination of patients. For this reason, general practitioners in private practice should also carry out the injections. Some states, such as Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Hamburg, have already started doing so, Spahn said. With the countries one changes at present the inoculation regulation accordingly. The vaccination in the practices is prepared "as soon as possible".
Photo by Daniel Schludi