Coronavirus vaccine shortages, and a fight with AstraZeneca, threaten E.U.’s campaign only a month in
By Loveday Morris and Chico Harlan,
Sean Gallup/Pool Reuters
BERLIN — One month after its launch, Europe’s coronavirus vaccination campaign is already faltering, marked by delays, empty inoculation centers and a frayed relationship with one of the key companies in the strategy to ease the pandemic.
A bitter clash between the European Union and vaccine maker AstraZeneca intensified Wednesday, when E.U. officials and the drugmaker, already at odds over the contract they signed, could not even agree on the facts about a meeting. The E.U. said AstraZeneca had backed out. AstraZeneca said the E.U. was incorrect.
The British-Swedish firm said last week that production delays would reduce the number of doses it could provide E.U. nations in the first months of this year, prompting a backlash from European leaders who threatened the company with legal action.
That fight comes against a background of boiling political frustration over levels of supply in Europe, as leaders complain they are not seeing their fair cut of vaccines that they invested in developing.
Madrid has halted giving out shots amid shortages, huge mass vaccination centers in Germany remain unused, and Italy has threatened to sue Pfizer-BioNTech after shipment delays caused regions to push back inoculations for ambulance workers, family doctors and the elderly.
But industry insiders lay some of the blame at the feet of European bureaucrats who spent months negotiating on price despite knowing that those who ordered first would receive some preference when it came to delivery.
The European Union put in its initial orders later than Britain and the United States.
As the blame game escalated this week, European officials said they would increase export controls in what they said was a bid to improve transparency, as vaccines manufactured in Europe are delivered to third countries.
The political battle with pharmaceutical companies, as well as production delays, has caused a European crisis of confidence about the rollout, while quashing the odds that the bloc reaches its target of inoculating 70 percent of the adult population by the end of the summer.
“Far too slow,” said Albrecht Broemme, the head of Berlin’s vaccination program, as he oversaw inoculations at a center that was inoculating at about a third of its planned capacity on Tuesday. “It’s far too slow.”
He said that his targets for vaccinating the vulnerable by March have already slipped. At the current rate, he hopes that people over 75 will have received their first shot by April, at best.
E.U. leaders were already facing criticism for their handling of the ordering process before the delays were announced. It is the effort to meet a late January order for 300 million more doses for the bloc that caused the supply delays with the Pfizer vaccine, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations.
“Everyone is looking for someone to blame,” the person said.
But the real blow to the E.U.’s vaccine plans has come with AstraZeneca’s announcement that its deliveries to the bloc could be reduced by 60 percent in the first quarter. The vaccine does not have the same complex cold storage requirements as the Pfizer vaccine, and with other vaccines that Europe was banking on delayed was a major part of Europe’s early vaccination hopes.
AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soroit has said the reduced delivery to Europe is due to lower yields than expected at a European manufacturing site. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Repubblica — part of a blitz of the European press — he described it as “really bad luck.”
“Actually, there’s nothing mysterious about it,” he said. “And quite honestly, I mean, we’re not doing it on purpose. I’m European, I have Europe at heart. Our chairman is Swedish, is European. Our CFO is European. Many people in the management are European. So we want to treat Europe as best we can.”
But AstraZeneca’s reduction, in locked down countries desperate for a way out of the pandemic, triggered a realization that vaccination campaign might prove more complicated — and more emotionally trying — than expected. Italy, for instance, had been counting on the AstraZeneca to supply more doses than any other drugmaker in the first half of 2021.
Before resigning this week, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had said that vaccine delays were causing “enormous damage” to Italy and the E.U. He said Italy stood to receive 3.4 million doses from AstraZeneca in the first part of the year rather than 8 million. He called the changes “unacceptable.”
“We had the vaccines ready within months, which is nothing less than a miracle,” said Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. “And now, we are sort of shipwrecking for distributing and administrating a vaccine. Which is unbelievable.”
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.