EU Sues AstraZeneca Over Vaccine Shortages

Acrimony between the European Union and vaccine maker AstraZeneca is set to get worse as the bloc goes to court over vaccine delays and shortages.

A health worker holds a vial of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Logrono, Spain, last month. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

(CN) — The European Union’s battles with vaccine maker AstraZeneca are poised to get a lot more testy after it decided to sue the company over delivery shortages and delays.

The European Commission confirmed on Monday that it was suing the British-Swedish multinational over the company’s alleged failure to meet its contractual obligations to the EU, which has added to Europe’s difficulties in getting its populations vaccinated.

Stefan De Keersmaeker, a commission spokesman, said legal proceedings against AstraZeneca were started on Friday after EU member states backed the action.

A copy of the lawsuit was not immediately available and the commission declined to provide a copy.

In an email to Courthouse News, De Keersmaeker said the suit was filed in a Brussels court of first instance. The contract was signed under Belgian law. He said a first hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. The EU has asked the court to handle the suit on an expedited emergency basis and a judgement could potentially be issued within three to seven weeks, he said.

The legal fight will amplify a feud the EU has had with the company since it announced in January that it wouldn’t deliver as many doses as it had promised.

Since then, EU leaders have questioned the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy, accused it of favoring the United Kingdom over the EU and threatened to stop AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in the EU from being shipped abroad. Confidence in the vaccine then plummeted after the European Medicines Agency in March said there was a possible link between the shot and exceedingly rare but serious blood clots. Three weeks ago, the agency confirmed the linked and many Europeans are now reluctant to take the vaccine.

The EU signed its first vaccine contract with AstraZeneca in August and made it a central pillar to its vaccine strategy, which later unraveled as the company announced delays and other vaccine candidates failed to come through for the EU.

As a consequence, the EU’s Brussels bureaucracy was blamed for causing a fiasco as Europe fell behind the U.K. and the United States in its vaccination drive. The EU is now pushing to purchase massive stockpiles of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine.

Initially, AstraZeneca promised to make its best effort in delivering 300 million doses to the EU by the end of June, but by the end of March it had sent only 30 million doses. EU officials say they expect only a third of the promised doses to be delivered by the end of June.

But the EU’s legal challenge faces legal hurdles because its contract stipulates that it can’t sue AstraZeneca over delays. Still, the EU feels the suit will spur the company to deliver more doses faster.

“What matters is to us in this case is that we want to make sure that there is a speedy delivery of sufficient number of doses that the European citizens are entitled to and which have been promised on the basis of the contract,” De Keersmaeker said.

In a statement, AstraZeneca said it will “strongly defend itself in court” and denied that it had failed to live up to its contract.

“We believe any litigation is without merit and we welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible,” the company said.

“Vaccines are difficult to manufacture, as evidenced by the supply challenges several companies are facing in Europe and around the world,” it added. “We are making progress addressing the technical challenges and our output is improving, but the production cycle of a vaccine is very long which means these improvements take time to result in increased finished vaccine doses.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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