EU faces fresh shortfall of AstraZeneca vaccine supplies

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Geneva (AFP)

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca on Saturday announced a fresh shortfall in planned vaccine shipments to the European Union, dealing another blow to the bloc's efforts to step up vaccinations.

The Anglo/Swedish pharmaceutical giant's image has already taken a beating with several countries suspending the rollout of its vaccine over blood clot fears, even as the World Health Organization said there was no reason to stop using it.

Denmark, Norway and Iceland have paused using the shot as a precaution and an Indian official on Saturday said the country would carry out a deeper review of its post-vaccination side effects next week.

AstraZeneca blamed production problems and export restrictions for the latest shortfall, a major setback in efforts to fight a pandemic that has claimed 2.6 million lives worldwide.

The company had previously warned it was facing shortfalls from its European supply chain due to "lower-than-expected output from the production process" and was hoping to compensate in part by sourcing vaccines from its global network.

"Unfortunately, export restrictions will reduce deliveries in the first quarter, and are likely to affect deliveries in the second quarter," it said in a statement on Saturday.

AstraZeneca started delivery of the vaccine to the EU in February, and still aims to deliver 100 million doses in the first half of 2021.

Of this, 30 million are due to be delivered in the first quarter.

AstraZeneca had initially agreed to supply three times as many doses in the first quarter, and 180 million doses in second quarter alone.

The under-fire firm said it was "collaborating with the EU Commission and member states to address the supply challenges.

The EU on Saturday sidestepped the issue of the number of AstraZeneca doses it was expecting and merely said: "We are aware that the company is experiencing supply issues and that discussions are on-going.

"We insist that the company is doing all it can to honour its commitments and we are following up with them.

In contrast, the United States has ramped up its vaccination programme after a shaky start.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 100 million vaccine doses have been administered in the US, around 30 percent of the world's total of shots given so far.

- A string of setbacks -

The company received further blows this week when several countries suspended use of its vaccine while the EU's drug regulator said severe allergies should be added to the possible side effects.

The World Health Organization, which said its vaccines advisory committee was examining the safety data coming in, has stressed that no causal link has been established between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clotting.

"Yes, we should continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine," WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said Friday, stressing that any concerns over safety must be investigated.

AstraZeneca insisted its jab was safe, adding there is "no evidence" of higher blood clot risks.

Italy and Austria have banned the use of jabs from separate batches of AstraZeneca, and Thailand and Bulgaria said this week they would delay their rollout.

The shadow cast over the AstraZeneca jab is adding to the EU's problems distributing vaccines amid fears of another bout of the virus.

Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Latvia meanwhile called for EU talks to discuss "huge disparities" in vaccine distribution, according to a letter published on Saturday.

The leaders of the countries sent the letter to the EU chiefs claiming that "deliveries of vaccine doses by pharma companies to individual EU member states are not being implemented on an equal basis."

- 'Unequal distribution -

"If this system were to carry on, it would continue creating and exacerbating huge disparities among member states by this summer, whereby some would be able to reach herd immunity in a few weeks while others would lag far behind," the letter said.

"We therefore call on you... to hold a discussion on this important matter among leaders as soon as possible."

Italy on Friday announced tough new restrictions in much of the country, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi warning it faced "a new wave" of infections.

Disneyland Paris, one of Europe's biggest tourist attractions, said it will not be able to reopen as planned on April 2 as infections remain stubbornly high in France.