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COVID-19 vaccine row: How reliant is the EU on supplies from AstraZeneca?

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A view of the AstraZeneca office building in Brussels, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.
A view of the AstraZeneca office building in Brussels, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mark Carlson
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The row between the EU and AstraZeneca over the supply of its COVID-19 vaccine highlights the tension over supplies as Europe struggles to roll out inoculation programmes.

The European Commission says it is not satisfied with the pharmaceutical company's explanation for delays which will see expected supplies fall by 60%. AstraZeneca says it committed itself to do its best but has experienced production glitches.

How dependent is the EU on AstraZeneca?

The European Commission's agreement with AstraZeneca, announced last August, is one of six contracts agreed with pharmaceutical companies to supply 2.3 billion doses of future coronavirus vaccines.

The agreement with the British-Swedish company was to supply the EU with up to 400 million doses of its vaccine (300m initially with an option for another 100m), developed in partnership with the University of Oxford. It has the advantage of being cheaper to produce than its rivals while being easier to store and transport.

Of those six contracts, only two vaccines have so far been given market approval by the European Commission. The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine was authorised on December 21, with approval for the vaccine developed by Moderna following on January 6.

The agreement with BioNTech-Pfizer is for up to 600 million doses. It too has experienced problems with production. The contract with Moderna is to supply up to 160 million doses.

However, several EU countries are said to have turned down purchasing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, believing them to be too expensive and difficult to roll out. So they are indeed relying on AstraZeneca, adding to the tension over distribution.

Why has AstraZeneca cut its planned supplies to the EU?

AstraZeneca blames production problems at its site in Belgium for the reason to cut its planned supplies. It has four sites in Europe including two in the UK.

The company's Chief Executive Pascal Soriot has said that given the short time-scale between the vaccine's creation, production and anticipated delivery, "glitches" or "scale-up problems" are to be expected -- and indeed were experienced in the UK and the US.

"But the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So, with the UK, we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced," Soriot said in an interview published in European newspapers.

This explanation has not satisfied the European Commission. Officials have suggested the reasons given are "not clear enough", and that the UK plants should be able to deliver doses to the EU to make up the shortfall.

What is the Commission's role over vaccines?

The European Commission took charge of purchasing vaccines, although the rollout is in the hands of individual EU countries.

It says its Vaccine Strategy is to secure the production of vaccines and ensure sufficient supplies in member states, which it does via Advance Purchase Agreements with producers.

It also adapts EU regulations to the pandemic emergency, allowing for flexibility to speed up vaccine production and distribution. It helps identify vulnerable groups and monitors the effectiveness of national vaccine strategies.

The Commission adds that it has invested in funding research, including €660 million (€747m) under the Horizon 2020 programme to develop vaccines, treatments, tests and medical systems.

However, "the EU has invested significantly less than both the UK and the US on the vaccine front", according to Rasmus Bech Hansen, CEO of life sciences company Airfinity which has collected data on vaccines.

He told the BBC that the EU bet early on vaccine candidates, especially Sanofi-GSK which turned out to be an unreliable candidate.

"The bigger issue is that when you are in a pandemic, speed is of the essence, and a country needs to do things that it would normally not otherwise be doing, and really try to move as fast as possible," he added.

Why has the AstraZeneca vaccine not been approved earlier in the EU?

The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine was approved in the UK on December 30, a full month ahead of the EU. It is expected to be authorised by the European regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Friday (January 29).

The UK used an emergency authorisation process to get its vaccines approved and distributed, allowing temporary use. The EMA says this option was not open to the EU, which has used a longer process that involved input from all 27 member states.

EMA officials are said to have been working round the clock on the approval process, with email exchanges reported between staff even at 4 am.