A row between the EU and coronavirus vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca has prompted fears that supplies could be disrupted within the bloc, as well as to the UK.
The European Commission has threatened to impose tight controls on the export of vaccines manufactured in the bloc, potentially affecting the UK’s supply of Pfizer jabs.
This is what you need to know.
What prompted the row?
The EU is involved in a dispute with AstraZeneca, which makes the Oxford vaccine, over delays to deliveries of the jab.
AstraZeneca has said initial deliveries to the EU will fall short because of a production glitch – said to be at a hub in Belgium – and that it will not be able to meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March.
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides accused the company of a “lack of clarity” and “insufficient explanations”, adding “the answers of the company have not been satisfactory” following a meeting on Monday.
Crisis talks on Wednesday also failed to make a breakthrough, with Kyriakides complaining: “We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule.”
AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot told newspapers on Tuesday the EU contract was based on a best-effort clause and did not commit the company to a specific timetable for deliveries.
He said that vaccines meant for the EU were produced in four plants in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
But EU Commission officials said on Wednesday that the contract stipulated that the company had also committed to providing vaccines from two factories in Britain.
Earlier this week, an EU official involved in the talks told Reuters it means a 60% reduction to 31m doses. That is a significant blow to the bloc, which was already facing criticism for lagging behind the United States and Britain with its vaccination campaign.
The EU has asked AstraZeneca to find flexible ways to deliver doses and urged it to disclose vaccine production and distribution data.
How has the EU responded?
Unsurprisingly, the EU is annoyed that it won’t receive as many doses as it had been promised.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leye said: “Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine to create a truly global common good.
“And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations.”
European officials have floated a number of possible steps including lawsuits and restricting the export of supplies manufactured in the EU to countries outside the bloc – though there’s no suggestion that the current shortfall has anything to do with exports.
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides has proposed forcing all drugmakers to register their Covid-19 vaccine exports in advance, so the bloc can keep track of what they are doing.
Latvian foreign affairs minister Edgars Rinkevics said states could take AstraZeneca to court for breach of supply contracts if it did not honour its delivery schedule.
And Germany’s health minister supported restrictions on vaccine exports, saying Europe should have its “fair share”.
“I can understand that there are production problems but then it must affect everyone in the same way,” Jens Spahn told ZDF television.
There are also reports that the EU has specifically asked the British drugmaker if it can divert doses manufactured in the UK to make up for the shortfall in EU supplies, but the company did not answer these questions, an EU official told Reuters.
How does this affect the UK?
Britain’s supply of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is mostly manufactured in the UK rather than at the Belgium plant, so the EU’s spat with the company shouldn’t affect supplies of that specific jab.
But the EU’s threat to impose new rules on all vaccine manufacturers would also affect Pfizer, which makes its vaccine in a factory that is also in Belgium.
The row would would have to escalate further but if the EU went beyond asking for “early notification whenever [manufacturers] want to export vaccines to third countries” and were to impose actual export controls, then it could limit how many reach the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would have been a “great pity” if the United Kingdom had stayed in the European Union’s vaccine programme rather than set up its own plan.
“I do think that we’ve been able to do things differently, and better, in some ways,” he said in parliament.
How much Pfizer vaccine is the UK supposed to receive?
The UK is scheduled to receive 3.5m doses of the Pfizer vaccine over the next three weeks – but the majority of its incoming supplies, and the one currently making up the majority of jabs administered, is the AstraZeneca/Oxford shot.
In total, the UK has secured:
- BioNTech/Pfizer – 40m doses
- Oxford/Astra Zeneca – 100m doses
- Moderna – 17m doses
But it’s not known exactly how many of the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Pfizer vaccines are on UK soil ready to be administered. The Moderna vaccine is not due until spring.
Should we be worried?
Government vaccine tsar Nadhim Zahawi said on Tuesday morning he was “confident” that the Pfizer supply would continue.
Asked if the EU could prevent Pfizer vials leaving its borders, he told Sky News: “No, I’m confident that the Pfizer vaccine will be delivered.
“Pfizer have made sure that they have always delivered for us. They will continue to do so.”
It’s understood the UK has enough doses of vaccine to reach its target of getting a first dose of the jab to 15m people in the top priority groups – including all over-70s – by mid-February.
After that things could get tricky, even without the EU’s row with AstraZeneca.
Is there enough vaccine for all the countries likely to approve it?
No, not at the moment.
Speaking to the health and social care committee on Tuesday, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said that “of course there is a supply shortage” of vaccines.
He added: “If there were unlimited vaccines then you wouldn’t see what the European Commission were saying yesterday. You wouldn’t see Italy attempting to sue one of the manufacturers. You wouldn’t see Germany in uproar as it is today.
“Of course there’s a supply shortage, and we’ve done very well in this country to get the supply we have available to us, the question is how do we use it to best effect.”