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AstraZeneca row could spark an EU-UK vaccine trade war, warns MEP

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A nurse prepares a syringe with Pfizer/Biontech COVID-19 vaccine as medical workers are vaccinated at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium
A nurse prepares a syringe with Pfizer/Biontech COVID-19 vaccine as medical workers are vaccinated at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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The war of words between pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the European Commission continued on Thursday after a crisis meeting the previous evening failed to resolve the row over vaccine supplies.

AstraZeneca told the European Commission last week there would be a 60% shortfall in supplies this quarter due to production problems. Both sides described talks held on Wednesday as "constructive", but they failed to heal the rift.

Belgian health authorities said on Thursday they had inspected a pharmaceutical factory to find out whether expected delays in the deliveries of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine were due to production issues, as the company has claimed.

The European Commission had asked the Belgian government to inspect the factory amid the heated public dispute between the 27-nation bloc and the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker.

The dispute could spark a UK-EU trade war unless it changes course over its vaccine supply row with Brussels, an MEP has told Euronews.

Meanwhile, doubt has been cast in Germany on the vaccine after the country's vaccination commission questioned its effectiveness in older adults, and declined to recommend its use for people over 65.

EU anger at AstraZeneca stance

The European Medicines Agency is expected to approve the AstraZeneca jab this week. It comes amid frustration at the speed of Europe's vaccine rollout.

By contrast, the UK has administered 7.6 million vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech jab is among three it has approved.

In an interview with Euronews, German MEP Peter Liese has raised the prospect of a possible vaccine trade war.

"For five weeks now the BioNTech vaccine that is only produced in Europe, that has been developed with the aid of the German state and European Union money, is shipped to the United Kingdom," said Liese.

"So people in the United Kingdom are vaccinated with a very good vaccine that is produced in Europe, supported by European money. If there is anyone thinking that European citizens would accept that we give this high-quality vaccine to the UK and would accept to be treated as second class by UK based company.

"I think the only consequence can be to immediately stop the export of the BioNTech vaccine and then we are in the middle of a trade war. So, the company and the UK better think twice."

Liese was also unhappy at comments by the AstraZeneca boss that because the EU had ordered its supplies three months after the UK, there was less time to resolve production issues.

"We see that Europe is not treated well, not from the United States and not from the UK, and then we have to show our weapons. Europe was always open. We wanted cooperation. Europe was the initiator of COVAX, but in the meantime, the UK... did the treaty 'UK first'. So we need to react to this. If it's the UK first and if it's [the] US first, then we need to tell other companies in the world, if we treat the Europeans as second class, you will suffer for this."

German questions over vaccine's effectiveness

A draft recommendation from Germany's vaccination advisory committee calls for offering the AstraZeneca vaccine only to people aged 18-64 for now, citing what it says is insufficient data to judge its effectiveness for older people.

"There currently is not sufficient data to assess the vaccination effectiveness from 65 years," the country's vaccination commission said.

"The latest analyses of clinical trial data for the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine support efficacy in the over 65 years age group. We await a regulatory decision on the vaccine by the EMA in the coming days," an AstraZeneca spokesperson said in response.

AstraZeneca noted earlier this week that British regulators supported its use in the older age group despite lack of late-stage effectiveness data.

The company pointed to earlier-stage data published in The Lancet in November "demonstrating that older adults showed strong immune responses to the vaccine, with 100% of older adults generating spike-specific antibodies after the second dose."

Terms of contract disputed

European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides expressed "regret" on Wednesday that there was "continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule and request a clear plan from AstraZeneca for the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved".

Earlier, she said the EU had provided investment in return for a "binding commitment" to produce vaccines prior to regulatory approval.

AstraZeneca denies breaching the terms of its contract with the EU, following the revelation that planned supplies would be far reduced from levels it had agreed to aim for. The company's CEO has said it only signed up to make a "best effort" to deliver.

Pascal Soriot blamed glitches in production, saying the EU ordered its doses three months after the UK did, meaning there had been less time to sort out problems.

There have been calls for full details of the contract to be published.