In a move that could fracture ties between Britain and the European Union post-Brexit, the EU on Wednesday demanded that AstraZeneca divert vaccines from its U.K factories to Europe to make up for delays in supply.
Both the EU and former member Britain insisted the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company uphold contractual delivery promises to each of them – even as the company said there was not enough to go around.
"The 27 European Union member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments in our agreements," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a Brussels media conference.
In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson said: "We expect contracts to be adhered to. AstraZeneca has committed to two million doses a week here in the U.K. and we do not expect that to change."
The row was triggered last Friday when AstraZeneca informed the EU that it could only supply a quarter of the vaccine doses it had promised for the first three months of this year.
The news infuriated the European Commission, which is planning this week to add the AstraZeneca vaccine to two others it has already authorized – from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna – to help reach a goal of inoculating 70 % of adults in the EU by the end of August.
The anger became incandescent when AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot on Tuesday gave an interview saying his company was prioritizing supplies to the U.K., which had signed its contract three months before the EU did, and was required only to make a "best effort" to supply the bloc. Some member countries voiced calls for restriction on vaccine exports over the supply cuts.
Kyriakides said that went against the terms of the contact AstraZeneca signed with the European Commission.
"The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a 'best effort' agreement is neither correct nor is it acceptable," she said.
"We reject the logic of first-come, first-served. That may work at the neighborhood butcher's but not in contracts, and not in our advanced purchase agreements."
She noted that AstraZeneca had four operating vaccine plants in Europe – two in Britain and two in the EU – and the contract made no distinction between them in terms of the contractual volumes to be supplied.
EU officials briefing journalists on condition of anonymity stressed the EU had allocated 336 million euros ($406 million) to AstraZeneca to permit it to expand production.
Explanations from the company for the delay had varied and the main one, referring to a "yield problem" in one of the EU-based plants, was unsatisfactory, the officials said.
"We are not told what the real problem is," one of the officials said. As AstraZeneca's other plants – notably in the U.K. – were unaffected, "their story is slightly inconsistent".
"The real issue is that we are not having clarity on the path ahead," the official said, adding: "Which plants are they going to use to fulfil the contract?"
Should AstraZeneca start diverting vaccine supplies from the two U.K. plants, Johnson's commitment to have 15 million Britons vaccinated by mid-February could be jeopardized.
Britain, the first country to approve AstraZeneca's vaccine, is one of the leading countries in terms of the pace at which it is inoculating its population – doing so at five times the rate of EU member states collectively.
A sudden slowdown in those doses would be dramatic, especially as Britain has suffered the highest death toll from COVID-19 of any European country and Johnson is counting on the vaccinations to stem deaths
Tensions between the EU and Britain remain high in the wake of Brexit, with British traders and consumers suffering as they cope with higher costs and bureaucracy outside of the European single market.
The EU, meanwhile, plans to grill AstraZeneca further in a meeting with its executives later Wednesday.
There was some confusion, though, over the videoconference, with one EU official saying the company had abruptly pulled out but AstraZeneca saying it would attend.