Brussels squeezes AstraZeneca after 29 million doses found hidden

EU leaders discuss on Thursday the drawbacks of tightening vaccine export controls

4 min
Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine dose.

BrusselsFears of another wave of coronavirus are spreading and Europe lacks vaccines and, above all, the capacity to produce more. The heads of state and government of the European Union are meeting this Thursday in a virtual meeting with this unresolved problem and all the conflicts that arise from it. The first, the war with AstraZeneca that this Wednesday has lived a heated last chapter with the discovery of 29 million doses of its vaccine in an Italian factory ready to be shipped, at the same time that the pharmaceutical claims not to be able to deliver even half of the units committed to the EU in the first quarter. AstraZeneca has assured later, however, that half of the 29 million are for the Union.

Brussels is under maximum pressure in a race to immunise the public that is taking a long time compared to what is being done in the UK and the US. That's why the Commission has decided to move from words to deeds and to tighten the export control mechanism for vaccines to be able to veto the exit of doses produced in Europe to other countries that are either more advanced in immunisation or refuse to export vaccines to the Union. The Commission was given this export control mechanism at the end of February, when it first clashed with the company that manufactures the Oxford vaccine. Since then it has given the go-ahead for shipments of doses produced on European soil and has collected information that worsens the sense of grievance. 380 applications for exports to 33 countries have been approved, and only one has been vetoed. Since February, 10.9 million doses have been sent to the United Kingdom, 6.6 million to Canada, 5.4 million to Japan and a total of 35 million doses to countries such as Singapore and Australia.

30 million doses hidden in Italy

And while the EU has been exporting all these doses, especially to the UK, not a single one has arrived from the British Isles, where AstraZeneca has a large part of the production. Brussels set the control mechanism in motion precisely because it suspected that the pharmaceutical company was prioritising deliveries to the British government, and just this Wednesday the Italian newspaper La Stampa revealed that AstraZeneca has 29 million doses at the Catalent Biologics plant in the city of Anagni, south of Rome. The doses located by the Italian authorities after an investigation launched by the Commission are double the AstraZeneca doses received by the EU so far.

European sources explain that they had long suspected that AstraZeneca was hiding part of its real production capacity in Europe: "The numbers didn't add up," they say. Brussels alerted the member states and the Italian government promoted the investigation in the plant that has allowed them to locate these doses. The same sources, however, do not confirm that they had any suspicion that the doses were destined for the United Kingdom and, in fact, both the British government and the company have denied it.

AstraZeneca has assured the Commission that 16 million of the doses are for the EU and 13 million for Covax, the WHO initiative to get vaccines for the poorest countries. The investigation in Italy continues and, according to the same sources, the 16 million doses found for the EU show that the company was not being "very transparent" about its production capacity, because while they said they could not deliver more than 30 million in the first quarter they will end up delivering 35 million (the 16 million found in Italy in addition to the 19 million already delivered). Brussels suspects that the vaccines found were produced in a plant in the Netherlands that has not yet been authorised by the EMA and therefore could not deliver doses to the EU but could deliver doses to the UK. It is the company that has to seek authorisation from the EMA for its plants and, until now, the company had not applied for permission for this plant in the Netherlands.

Brussels and London are getting closer

While all this mess was being cleared up, the European Commission presented the reinforcement of the mechanism to block exports at a time when the UK is also having problems getting the second doses from AstraZeneca that it needs to fully immunise the British. Until now, the EU could only block exports of pharmaceuticals that breached the contract, but the intention is to equip itself with these new criteria to be able to turn off the tap. In addition, the exemption from export controls is lifted for up to 17 countries, such as Switzerland, Norway and Serbia.

It seems that the pressure is beginning to have an effect. In the evening, London and Brussels issued a joint communiqué in which they assured that they must "cooperate" and take into account their "interdependencies" to "increase the distribution of vaccines to all citizens". The EU executive's move was aimed more at provoking dialogue than vetoing exports in practice - Brussels never tires of repeating that so far it has only blocked one shipment of the 381 requested. "Having the stick should be enough, not using it," said a diplomatic source, alluding to the Union's intention to create the mechanism more as a tool for exerting pressure.

Member State reluctance

It is not only London that is afraid of the implications of this mechanism. According to diplomatic sources, several European governments have shown doubts and reservations upon learning of the text, not only because of the protectionist accent that the more liberal countries such as the Nordic ones reject by nature, but also because of the global production problems that such an initiative can generate and have asked to be extremely "careful". They warn that the vaccine production chain is global (ingredients and materials are imported and exported between countries around the world) and, therefore, if an eventual EU veto would provoke retaliation, global production of doses could suffer. Leaders will discuss it on Wednesday, but are not expected to back the Commission's proposal yet. "We need more time to discuss it," says a senior European source