PARIS (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - AstraZeneca's chief executive insisted on Tuesday (Jan 26) that the company was not selling vaccines ordered by the European Union to other countries at a profit, after delayed orders sparked fury from EU leaders.
The British-Swedish drugs firm admitted last week that it would not meet its contractual delivery commitments to the EU because of "reduced yields" in its European supply chain.
That prompted European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides to announce that the EU plans to start tracking vaccine shipments exported to non-member countries - a sign of growing distrust.
"The European Union wants to know exactly which doses have been produced where by AstraZeneca so far, and if or to whom they have been delivered," she said on Monday.
AstraZeneca's CEO Pascal Soriot sought to calm the situation on Tuesday, acknowledging that European governments were growing "aggravated or emotional" due to repeated stumbling blocks in their vaccine roll-outs.
"Our team is working 24/7 to fix the... issues of production of the vaccine itself," he told the LENA European newspaper alliance.
He stressed: "We're certainly not taking vaccines away from the Europeans to sell it somewhere else at the profit."
The company, which teamed up with Oxford University to develop its vaccine, has pledged not to make a profit on sales of the jab during the pandemic.
The company is working with Oxford to develop a vaccine that specifically targets a more infectious South African strain of Covid-19, Mr Soriot said.
AstraZeneca's woes came a week after United States group Pfizer said it was also cutting early delivery volumes of its vaccine produced with German firm BioNTech.
Those two announcements have risked up-ending the EU's vaccination programmes while heaping pressure on the European Commission, which took on the task of negotiating vaccine orders on behalf of all 27 member states.
Mr Soriot noted that recently departed EU member Britain - which said on Tuesday it was confident of receiving all its vaccine doses - had started its roll-out three months earlier.
"So with the UK, we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced," he said.
Mr Soriot said the company signed a so-called best-effort agreement that does not specify a quantity. That is because EU insisted on receiving the vaccine about the same time as the United Kingdom despite putting in its order three months later.
"Would I like to do better? Of course," he said in comments published in La Repubblica and other newspapers. "But, you know, if we deliver in February what we are planning to deliver, it's not a small volume. We are planning to deliver millions."
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is still awaiting regulatory approval in the EU, with a decision from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) due on Friday.
The firm said last year that it had agreed with the European Commission to supply up to 400 million doses to the EU.
"As soon as we get an approval by EMA, in the next few days, we will be shipping at least three million doses immediately to Europe," M r Soriot said. "The target is to deliver 17 million doses by February."
Europe is on track to receive 17 per cent of AstraZeneca's global production in February "for a population that is 5 per cent of the world population", he noted.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper than that produced by rivals such as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, and is also easier to stock since it does not need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures.
Meanwhile, the EU will seek on Wednesday to resolve the stand-off with AstraZeneca.
In a crunch call, officials representing national governments and the European Commission will demand the company meets its vaccine commitment.
They will also seek fundamental information from executives about delivery plans for the first half of the year, according to an official with knowledge of the situation. The call is scheduled for 6.30pm Brussels time (1.30am on Thursday, Singapore time).
The EU's plan to start tracking vaccine shipments exported to non-member countries could spark retaliation by other countries, disrupting the flow of life-saving shots just as billions of people wait to be inoculated against a virus that has wreaked havoc on the global economy.
Getting people vaccinated is the main hurdle to efforts by European governments to restore normality after 2020's record recession.
With so much riding on vaccinations, the EU's executive arm is due to present its export monitoring proposal by the end of this week. An AstraZeneca spokesman said the company has not diverted any products from the Europe supply chain.
Governments across the bloc are eager to dodge the blame for the underwhelming performance, which could force them to prolong lockdowns. The measures have crippled industries from aviation to hospitality, and are causing growing discontent.
The Netherlands is facing its worst civil unrest in four decades because of its curfew, Belgium has banned everyone from entering or leaving the country without compelling reason as at Wednesday, while Ireland's strict lockdown is set to be extended until at least March 5.
While the details of the EU's plans to monitor exports have yet to be revealed, the World Trade Organisation would not hinder the bloc from implementing temporary vaccine export restrictions or even an outright ban.
The WTO rulebook contains a specific exemption that allows nations to temporarily impose such measures to prevent or relieve critical shortages of essential products. There is also a broad exemption if the actions are deemed necessary to protect human life and health.
Protectionist measures could add another layer of complexity for pharmaceutical companies struggling to satisfy an unprecedented demand for vaccines.
But EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis dismissed the idea that a notification system for vaccine exports would limit them in any way.
"We're not planning to impose an export ban or export restrictions," Mr Dombrovskis told reporters on Tuesday in Brussels. "Primarily it's a matter of transparency on the deliveries."