Covid-19 in Europe

EU looks to sue AstraZeneca over vaccine delivery shortfall

Empty vials of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine in a vaccination centre in Madrid, Spain on 24 March, 2021.
Empty vials of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine in a vaccination centre in Madrid, Spain on 24 March, 2021. © AFP/Gabriel Bouys

The European Commission is looking to launch legal action against AstraZeneca for underdelivering Covid-19 vaccine doses to the EU, diplomats said Thursday.

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The European Union (EU) executive informed member state envoys of its plans on Wednesday, the diplomats told French news agency AFP, confirming information first published by the Politico website.

They said any lawsuit against AstraZeneca would begin in a Belgian court -- the jurisdiction agreed under the commission's contract with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company.

One EU diplomat said the commission wanted EU member states -- which also had a role in negotiating the Covid-19 vaccine contracts for the bloc -- to back the lawsuit and to say so by the end of this week.

"The problem is that the member states do not know the complaint" being formulated, the diplomat said. "It is a sensitive procedure and you do not want to further damage trust in the vaccine."

Another diplomat said that "not all member states are in agreement" on taking the company to court, stressing that their aim was simply to have AstraZeneca deliver the doses it had promised in its contract.

A quarter of doses delivered in the EU

So far, AstraZeneca has delivered just 30 million of the 120 million doses it had promised, and it has warned it will likewise provide just 70 million of the 180 million more meant to be delivered over the rest of this year.

Public confidence in the AstraZeneca jab - now known as Vaxzevria - has taken a blow after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it was likely linked to a very rare, but often fatal, form of blood clots affecting the brain.

The EMA and the commission have not changed their stance on a general use of AstraZeneca, saying its benefits outweighed the risks, but several EU countries have restricted it to older citizens, aged over 50, 55 or 60.

AstraZeneca's French-Australian boss, Pascal Soriot, has argued that his company's contract with the EU binds it only to a "best reasonable efforts" clause.

But the commission says the rest of the contract shows greater legal responsibility than that, and EU diplomats and lawmakers have pointed out that the company has largely delivered promised doses to Britain, where it is headquartered.

The European Commission did not confirm the reports of planned legal action.

"What matters is that we ensure the delivery of a sufficient number of doses in line with the company's earlier commitments," a spokesman said.

"Together with the member states, we are looking at all options to make this happen," he said.

(with AFP)

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