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After bitter spat, AstraZeneca to supply 9 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses to EU

Vial of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine
A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by British drugmaker AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
(Gareth Fuller )

Drugmaker AstraZeneca has agreed to supply 9 million additional doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to the European Union during the first quarter, the bloc’s executive arm said Sunday.

AstraZeneca’s new target of shipping 40 million doses to the EU’s 27 nations by the end of March is still only half of what the company had originally aimed for before it announced a shortfall because of production problems. The reduction triggered an acrimonious spat between the British-Swedish firm and the EU last week.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after a call with seven vaccine-makers Sunday that AstraZeneca would also begin deliveries one week earlier than scheduled and expand its manufacturing capacity in Europe.

“Step forward on vaccines,” tweeted Von der Leyen, who has come under intense pressure over the European Commission’s handling of COVID-19 vaccine orders in recent days.

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The EU is far behind Britain and the United States in getting its population of 450 million vaccinated against COVID-19. The slow rollout has been blamed on a range of national problems as well as the EU’s slower authorization of the vaccines and an initial shortage of supply.

AstraZeneca’s announcement last week that it would initially provide only 31 million doses to the EU because of production problems set off a fierce dispute, with officials in Brussels suggesting that the company was treating the EU unfairly compared with other customers, including Britain.

The 27-nation EU is coming under fire by residents for the slow rollout of the bloc’s coordinated COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

On Friday, hours after regulators authorized AstraZeneca’s vaccine for use across the EU, the commission said it was tightening rules on exports of COVID-19 doses, sparking an angry response from the U.K.

The commission has since made clear that the new measure would not limit vaccine shipments produced within the EU to Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. that remains inside the EU’s single market for goods despite Brexit. Unhindered cross-border trade and movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, was guaranteed under the post-Brexit deal struck between Britain and the EU in December.

EU nations had praised the bloc’s executive branch last year for signing numerous deals with various vaccine-makers, saying the joint purchase using the combined market weight of the entire bloc had ensured a fair distribution for all 27 countries at good prices.

But the mood among many EU citizens toward Brussels has soured as countries outside the bloc speed ahead in the race to inoculate their populations.

British doctors seek urgent review of the government’s decision to delay the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine by up to 12 weeks to stretch supply.

The British government hasn’t been shy about promoting its relative vaccination success, which has helped distract from the fact that the country has the worst COVID-19 death toll in Europe.

Official figures show 598,389 shots were administered across the U.K. on Saturday, more than six times the number that Germany managed Friday, the last day for which figures were available.

Germany has so far given at least one dose to 2.2% of its population. Britain has done the same for 13.2% of its residents.

In response, Chancellor Angela Merkel summoned state governors Monday to discuss what German media are describing as a “vaccination debacle” in a country normally seen as efficient and orderly.

Von der Leyen, who was Germany’s defense minister before taking the post in Brussels, insisted that the EU had “made good progress.”

“Of course we’ve currently got a difficult phase,” she told German public broadcaster ZDF, adding that in the second quarter of 2021, more vaccine would become available as regulators approve additional formulas and further production capacity goes online.

Pfizer, which developed the first widely tested and approved COVID-19 vaccine together with German firm BioNTech, has said that it expects to increase global production this year from 1.3 million doses to 2 billion doses. BioNTech said Monday that up to 75 million of those additional doses would be delivered to the EU in the second quarter.

In a statement, the European Commission said it plans to set up a specialized body to improve the bloc’s response to public health emergencies and “deliver a more structured approach to pandemic preparedness.”

As part of the effort, together with industry, the EU said it would “fund design and development of vaccines and scale up manufacturing in the short and medium term, and also to target the variants of COVID-19.”

“The pandemic highlighted that manufacturing capacities are a limiting factor,” the commission said. “It is essential to address these challenges.”


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