EU officials say AstraZeneca pulled out of crunch call on vaccine delay

The EU is pressing AstraZeneca Plc to reconsider the move. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - Drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc has pulled out of a call scheduled for Wednesday (Jan 27) with governments on coronavirus vaccine delays, according to European Union officials, which would mark another escalation in a tense blame game between the two sides.

The EU is pressing the company to reconsider the move because it wants executives to provide more details what is happening to the planned deliveries of shots, one of the officials said on condition of anonymity. AstraZeneca couldn't confirm if the call was cancelled.

The discussions were intended to resolve the stand-off between the company and EU governments, but the build-up has been marked by disagreement over contract terms, accusations, and even threats to AstraZeneca's business.

Since the company warned late last week of delays at a production plant in Belgium, the EU has reacted furiously, saying it would start monitoring exports of shots. Germany even signalled support for imposing limits on sales outside the bloc.

But AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot, in an interview with European newspapers, deflected the responsibility to the EU. He said the company has a so-called best-effort agreement that doesn't specify a quantity. That is because the EU insisted on receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine about the same time as Britain despite putting in its order three months later.

A key part of the disagreement is the use of vaccines produced in British factories. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an EU official said that Mr Soriot's claim that Britain has priority on vaccines from British plants doesn't exist in the contract.

The EU's vaccination pace is lagging way behind the United States and Britain in terms of the share of its population inoculated, according to Bloomberg's global tracker. Mr Soriot said that once AstraZeneca gets EU regulatory approval - expected within days - it will ship at least three million doses immediately, with a target of 17 million by February.

Governments are desperate to accelerate the vaccine programme to help economies exit damaging lockdowns that have crippled industries and caused growing discontent.

They are also eager to dodge the blame, which may explain their tough words on AstraZeneca. Mr Soriot suggested he understands that the situation is difficult for leaders across Europe, where Brussels has coordinated a vaccine-buying programme.

"Everybody is getting kind of a bit, you know, aggravated or emotional about those things," he said in the comments published in La Repubblica and other newspapers. "But I understand because the commission is managing the process for the whole of Europe."

In an effort to alleviate supply shortages, French drugmaker Sanofi said it has agreed to help produce more than 125 million doses of the shot Pfizer Inc developed with Germany's BioNTech SE. That shot, and one by Moderna Inc, are already authorised for use.

Sanofi will provide BioNTech with access to its production sites in Frankfurt starting this summer, it said in a statement on Wednesday. The goal is to accelerate efforts to package and distribute the vaccine, which needs to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is due to present its export monitoring proposal by the end of this week. In addition to AstraZeneca's vaccine, the one from Pfizer and BioNTech is also made within the bloc, with some of the production sent outside the EU.

While the details of the EU's plans have yet to be revealed, the World Trade Organization would not prevent vaccine export restrictions or even an outright ban. Its rules have exemptions in the event of critical shortages of essential products or if action is necessary to protect human life and health.

The risk there is that protectionist measures could add another layer of complexity for pharmaceutical companies, or spark retaliation by other countries, disrupting the flow of life-saving shots.

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."

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