Brussels vaccine debacle: has the Commission cut itself in the fingers?

The European Commission and AstraZeneca are again discussing today the number of vaccines AstraZeneca can deliver in the first quarter. It will be a difficult conversation, because Brussels is on a collision course with the pharmaceutical company. Although the criticism of ones own actions behind the scenes also starts to increase cautiously.

On Friday it was announced that AstraZeneca will deliver not 80 million vaccines, but only about 30 million vaccines to the 27 EU countries in the first quarter. That message appears to have come before the European Commission as a thunderstorm. โ€œWe were completely perplexedโ€, sources within the Commission say. It was precisely on the Astrazeneca vaccine that a large part of the EU vaccination strategy was built.

Yet there have been rumors for weeks that AstraZeneca could deliver less. Almost two weeks ago, a spokesman for the company even informed DeccEit that the planning maintained by the Dutch Ministry of VWS was an old plann. That same day, the claim was withdrawn again, but eventually it turned out to be true.


The official Brussels line is clear: AstraZeneca is responsible for late delivery. The company also appears to be in favour of the United Kingdom, partly with vaccines produced in the EU.

The Commission does not say which vaccines are involved, but British media already wrote in December that due to manufacturing problems in the United Kingdom itself, vaccines produced in the Netherlands and Germany would be used in the first instance. In the Netherlands, AstraZeneca works together with the Leiden company Halix.

The Commission now wants to know precisely from AstraZeneca how many vaccines were produced there and where they went. In order to prevent this from happening again in the future, there should be a notification obligation for the export of vaccines, the Commission considers. Rich late, Brussels diplomats admit behind the scenes. Had this obligation to notify, the vaccines produced in the EU would probably have stayed here as well.

Focus on the price

It is not the only criticism of the European Commissions negotiating strategy by diplomats and politicians in Brussels. It would have been far too much focused on the price and much less on terms of delivery. โ€œWeve known the pharmaceutical industry for so long now, dont we know you have to count your fingers when you negotiate with them?โ€

For AstraZeneca it is clear: โ€œWe have not committed ourselves to anything. We promised to do our utmost,โ€ said top man Pascal Seriot yesterday to the German medium Die Welt.

That doesnt seem unlikely. The contract with AstraZeneca is not public, so no one can check the verdict. But the only contract with a pharmaceutical that is public, that with the German company Curevac, does not say much more about security of supply than that the pharmaceutical company has to do its utmost. If it fails to meet the delivery schedules, โ€œthe company must inform the Commission as soon as reasonably possible, give reasons for the delay and send a new delivery scheduleโ€.

Lawyer Ellent Hoen is surprised at that โ€œmeager passageโ€. โ€œIt could have said that they should provide an explanation to the satisfaction of the Commission. But the contracts are mainly about removing risks for companies and less about securing public investment.โ€

Nevertheless, the accusing fingers within the European Commission point above all towards AstraZeneca. Commission sources point to the hundreds of millions paid to AstraZeneca to increase production even before there was market approval for the vaccine.

Clear the time

Since August, AstraZeneca had time to produce the vaccines. Then the contract with the EU was signed. The pharmaceutical himself says its late. โ€œThe contract with Britain was signed three months earlier than the contract with the EU, so we had three months more to solve the problems.โ€

However, the Commission sources say that AstraZeneca had plenty of time. The company had, of course, approval problems, which gave itself months of extra time to produce vaccines, it sounds outraged.

The excuse that there are problems in a Belgian production company does not provide sufficient explanation, as the European Commission says. It may explain part of the deficit, but not the full deficit. It also refers to two British producers, who could simply supply.

For example, today the European Commission and AstraZeneca are diametrically opposed to each other. Brussels will probably have to solve it with political pressure, because legally there seems to be little chance of success. โ€œIf you have a pruning contract, then Im surprised that there are no legal stepsto be taken. Thats a sweep sign,โ€ says a diplomat.

Nevertheless, yesterday afternoon the official spokesman line of the European Commission was optimistic. โ€œWe talk to AstraZeneca to get these doses. And trust me, we will not give up until we reach our goal.โ€