By Aoife White
The European Union attacked AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 vaccine supply “failure” and demanded millions of euros in penalties if the company can’t meet an urgent order for more doses in the latest round of a bitter legal dispute over alleged broken promises by the drugmaker.
At a hearing that kicked off on Wednesday, a Belgian court is weighing EU claims that there’s an emergency situation that merits an order for the drug maker to deliver 20 million more shots than it has promised so far by the end of June.
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The company should pay a fine of 10 euros ($12) a day for overdue vaccines if it can’t comply, a lawyer for the European Commission said in the Brussels Court of First Instance on Wednesday.
The delay in supplying vaccines jeopardizes the health of millions of EU citizens, Fanny Laune, a lawyer representing the EU’s executive, said. “We have to vaccinate quickly and widely to bring the mortality rate down, without the AstraZeneca vaccines we cannot.”
Astra’s supply contract with the EU came into focus after it delivered just 30 million doses in the first quarter, compared with an original target of 120 million. The company blamed the shortfall on difficulties producing the vaccine at European plants. The EU has insisted the company should have relied on British facilities, raising questions over Astra’s separate deal with the U.K.
The same court will examine later this year whether Astra violated the terms of its contract. Another lawyer for the EU, Rafael Jafferali told judges earlier that the company hadn’t tried to use all its production facilities to meet the EU order and the company’s record so far is “obviously a failure.” It was “flagrant” that the company had exported some 50 million doses outside of the EU, mostly to the U.K. and Japan, at the same time.
The EU wants the court to demand Astra to deliver a further 90 million doses by the end of June, 20 million more than it currently plans to hand over by that date, to reach the 120 million target. The EU is also asking for 180 million doses by the end of September, to fulfill the full contract of 300 million doses ordered last year.
Europe had a slow start in vaccinating its 448 million population, partly due to uncertainties over vaccine supplies, hampering efforts to reopen economic activity after the coronavirus pandemic forced the region into an unprecedented downturn last year.
Aside from the dispute over deliveries, Astra’s vaccine has been mired in controversy in Europe over alleged clotting side effects, which have led some EU members to limit its use to specific age groups. The European Medicines Agency has warned doctors to check on patients who may be vulnerable to clots.
The EU has been turning to Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE for an additional 1.8 billion vaccines.
AstraZeneca’s lawyer, Hakim Boularbah, argued that the company made it clear to the EU that manufacturing a new vaccine was fraught with uncertainties. The contract includes a provision that the company would not be liable for any delay, he said.
The drugmaker doesn’t sell its shot for profit, but the prospect of a long legal battle with 27 governments raises the risk of litigation costs and damage payments.
The Brussels Court of First Instance could decide within a month on the EU’s request for order to supply the contested vaccines.
Nearly half of EU adults have now received at least one shot of a vaccine, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet on Tuesday.