EU braces itself for more Covid-19 vaccine delays, extends export control

Employees put Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines into refrigeration at the company's factory in Puurs, on Feb 22, 2021.
Employees put Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines into refrigeration at the company's factory in Puurs, on Feb 22, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - European Union governments are bracing themselves for further possible delays in the distribution of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine after a warning from the European Commission that the manufacturer remains a problem, according to a diplomatic note seen by Bloomberg.

Astra chief executive Pascal Soriot said last month the company would look at tapping international supply chains to make up for some of the shortfall, including production in the US. It has revised its delivery schedule multiple times, most recently committing to 40 million doses this quarter and 180 million in the second from an earlier goal of about 280 million across both periods.

But at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday (March 10), diplomats were told by senior EU officials that Astra continues to be "problematic". They also heard that Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to receive market authorisation from the European Medicines Agency this week, has yet to provide a delivery schedule for its vaccine.

On Thursday, the EU said it was extending its vaccine export control mechanism to the end of June from mid-March, citing "persistent delays" in some deliveries.

On J&J, the EU had said in January that under the contract, the company would fill and finish a portion of its EU supply in the US, prompting concerns among some governments. The EU said at the time that it didn't expect this to impact deliveries.

This week the commission told diplomats that it was looking into the possibility of finding some of that fill-finish capacity in other third countries as it wasn't readily available in the EU, according to the note of the meeting.

Spokesmen for J&J and Astra declined to comment.

The EU diplomatic note added that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and US President Joe Biden committed to coordinating on Covid-19, including on supply chains, in a call last week.

But EU officials were told that there won't be an immediate fix for deliveries via the US. The White House has said it will focus on inoculating Americans first.

The EU has purchased 200 million doses of the J&J vaccine, with an option for 200 million more. Deliveries were expected to begin in early April, but officials are now bracing themselves for delays, two people with knowledge of the process said earlier this week.

According to a draft of Italy's latest vaccination plan, dated March 10 and seen by Bloomberg, the country expects to receive about seven million doses of the J&J vaccine in the second quarter and almost 16 million in the third. A government official who asked not to be named said the expected schedule could be subject to change. Italy is so far the only EU country to have used the bloc's export authorisation mechanism to block a vaccine shipment.

At Wednesday's meeting, EU diplomats heard that delivery of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for this quarter remain on track, and an agreement reached with Pfizer and German partner BioNTech for the supply of four million more doses should start reaching member states in the next two weeks.

The diplomatic note adds that member states remain concerned about vaccine production and delivery, and a number of ambassadors called on the EU to strengthen its surveillance of delivery schedules and to keep governments in the loop on efforts to increase production capacity.

Separately, EU Ambassador to the UK Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels and London need to rethink their post-Brexit ties after a dispute over vaccine exports saw a top bloc official hector Britain over its practices.

“We need to make an effort to change the mindset, and give up on trying to score points on disputes of the past,” he said at a press briefing with reporters on Thursday.