Ursula von der Leyen has said it is “crystal clear” that AstraZeneca is bound by its contract to deliver coronavirus vaccine doses produced in the UK to the EU to make up for a shortfall in production in Belgium.
As AstraZeneca agreed to publish a redacted version of its contract with the European commission on Friday, the commission’s president dismissed the arguments of its chief executive, Pascal Soriot, that the British government had a first claim on doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire.
Von der Leyen said the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company was legally obliged to use all four plants named in its contract – two in the UK, one in Belgium and a fourth in the Netherlands – to deliver on its promised order.
The European commission has paid €336m (£298m) for 400m doses, the first 100m of which were due to be delivered in the first quarter of this year.
Last week the company enraged officials by announcing that only 25% of the deliveries would be possible owing to production problems at the Belgian plant, and that it could not make good on the shortages by importing from the UK.
Von der Leyen told the German radio station Deutschlandfunk that the company’s stance was unacceptable. “There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear,” she said. “AstraZeneca has also explicitly assured us in this contract that no other obligations would prevent the contract from being fulfilled.”
She said the “best effort” clause in the AstraZeneca contract with the EU was supposed to refer to the period during which the company was developing the vaccine. “This is now in the past … Once a vaccine is there, there were very clear rules regarding amounts as well as timeframes – they are in the contract – and there are also locations where the vaccine should be produced.”
The UK said it could not publish details of its AstraZeneca supply contract because it would jeopardise national security. But a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said Britain was confident it would receive sufficient Covid-19 vaccine doses to keep its programme on track, despite the dispute.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be authorised for use without restrictions by the European Medicines Agency on Friday, and advance orders of the doses were considered key to building momentum in the bloc’s vaccination effort. Just 2% of the EU adult population have received a vaccine jab, compared with 11% of those in the UK.
The UK has secured 367m doses of the seven most promising vaccines, including 100m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Among those procured by Britain include a vaccine developed by Novavax, which on Thursday said it proved 89% effective in a UK trial, and Johnson & Johnson, which on Friday said its shot was between 72% to 66% effective.
The lack of doses in the EU has already forced the Spanish government to announce a temporary pause in its rollout of the vaccine in Madrid, and to warn that Catalonia could follow. The public health agency for Paris and the surrounding region, an area with a population of 12.1 million people, informed hospitals on Thursday that it would suspend its programme from 2 February.
Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said on Friday: “We still have some difficult weeks of vaccine shortages ahead of us.”
The European commission will announce details on Friday of an export authorisation system that would allow member states to block vaccine doses from leaving its territory, raising concerns about the continued supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for which the UK has an order of 40m doses.
The ratcheting up of the dispute between AstraZeneca and the European commission and the UK weighed heavily on the pharmaceutical company’s share price, as well as the wider market, with the FTSE 100 index on track for its worst trading week since October. AstraZeneca’s shares fell 1.6% on Friday and have fallen by 6% since Tuesday.
The FTSE 100 was trading down 1.54% to 6,425 points, and on track to wipe out all gains made this month. All the main European indices were also trading about 1% lower.
Additional reporting by Kate Connolly and Rupert Neate