Gallina told diplomats some countries were passing on their share of Pfizer doses in anticipation of securing drugs from AstraZeneca, which was due to launch deliveries to the EU once its vaccine won regulatory approval there in late January. Both companies’ vaccines are made and exported from plants a short drive from Brussels. AstraZeneca also makes vaccines for the EU at factories in Germany and Britain, according to the EU Commission.
Gallina told the meeting member states saw AstraZeneca as a “star” for its low prices and big numbers.
The companies have declined to comment on prices; AstraZeneca’s vaccine costs about 2.5 euros ($3) per dose, against 15.5 euros for Pfizer’s, two EU negotiators directly involved in talks with vaccine makers told Reuters. AstraZeneca committed to deliver at least 80 million doses through March, or up to 120 million, an official involved in the talks told Reuters.
EU negotiators were aware AstraZeneca was scaling back its planned supply because of production problems. The company had told the EU’s steering group on December 4 that it would reduce its targets for the first quarter to two-thirds of the 120 million maximum, according to a diplomatic note.
At a public hearing on January 12 in the European Parliament, Gallina told EU lawmakers that she had heard only three instances of “relatively minor” complaints about deliveries.
Three days later, on January 15, Pfizer too said it had trimmed production and would temporarily cut supplies to the EU from its Belgian plant. There was an immediate public outcry across Europe. Italy’s special commissioner for COVID-19, Domenico Arcuri, said Italy was considering legal action against Pfizer.
Despite these delays, the EU Commission went ahead and announced an ambitious vaccination goal.
On Jan. 19, when just over five million vaccines had been administered in the EU, the Commission published targets to inoculate at least 80 percent of health workers and the elderly above the age of 80 by March, and 70 percent of the EU’s adult population by the end of the summer. It also proposed a way to donate excess doses to poorer countries.
The next day in the S7 Room briefing, EU diplomats told Commission officials those goals were too bold.
“We have only about two percent vaccinated. How did you come up with the 70 percent target?” a representative from Lithuania asked. “We prefer to under-promise and over-deliver,” the Dutch delegate said. A spokesman for the Dutch ambassador confirmed the Netherlands had raised concerns about the ambition in the Commission proposal. A spokeswoman for the Lithuanian ambassador declined to comment.
Three days later, the notes showed Gallina telling diplomats that Pfizer’s sudden cut had “savaged” member states’ vaccination plans. But she reassured them shipments would resume the following week.
Worse was to come. On Friday January 22, AstraZeneca, due to start EU deliveries on February 15, said it would cut supplies further over the first three months. A senior official involved in the talks told Reuters this would mean a roughly 60 percent fall – to 31 million doses instead of 80 million.
The European Commission went on the offensive. A few hours after the announcement, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides tweeted about her “deep dissatisfaction.” The following Monday the Commission summoned AstraZeneca’s executives to meetings to pressure the company to lift deliveries.
The Commission won concessions – AstraZeneca sweetened its offer to add eight million doses from an earlier date of February 7.
It was not enough. Aware of production problems at AstraZeneca’s Belgian site, the EU Commission asked for drugs from Germany and Britain. But AstraZeneca offered no clarity on whether doses could be diverted from Britain, an EU official who attended the meeting said.
The next day, the company’s Chief Executive Pascal Soriot told European newspapers AstraZeneca was not legally required to deliver doses to the EU on a precise timeline, because its contract only stated it would make its “best efforts” to deliver.
He also said Britain had signed up for its vaccine earlier than the EU and had asked to be served first from UK-based plants. The UK government declined to comment.
Soriot’s remarks infuriated the EU Commission. On January 27, according to the notes, Gallina told diplomats she was “shocked” by “the level of incorrect statements” that she said Soriot had made about AstraZeneca’s commitments. AstraZeneca declined to comment.
The Commission, saying it was confident of the strength of its legal arguments, publicly demanded AstraZeneca publish the contract they had agreed. A heavily redacted version was eventually made public on January 29.
“BACK AGAINST THE WALL”
At the January 27 meeting, Gallina told delegates around the S7 Room table that some of the problems with AstraZeneca had already been known, but the new cut was “a big blow.”
She also said the EU had no breakdown of who was exporting vaccines where. “We have some information but we need more,” she said.
Rough customs data showed millions of COVID-19 vaccines had been exported in past weeks from the EU to Britain, Canada, Israel and China, she said. The EU Commission did not respond to a request for export data. Britain, Israel and Canada have said they received Pfizer’s vaccines from the EU; Britain has also said it received AstraZeneca’s vaccine from the EU. Fosun, the China-based company which has exclusive rights to sell Pfizer’s vaccine in China and Hong Kong, had no comment.
Gallina added the EU would set up a new mechanism to track and licence exports. The EU’s lawyers could use several legal arguments to pressure AstraZeneca into releasing more doses, she added.
The briefing did not go well. At least five diplomats told the meeting the Commission had pushed too far in its public fight and urged it to calm the dispute, at least privately. Legal action would not produce more vaccines quickly, they said.
“The Commission has its back against the wall,” French ambassador Leglise-Costa told the meeting, according to the notes. He urged an immediate change in the communication strategy.
Later that day, on another call with the Commission, Soriot told the EU not to expect doses from AstraZeneca’s factories in Britain because London was using a clause in its contract that gave it priority over doses made in the United Kingdom, two EU officials told Reuters.
“ACT OF HOSTILITY”
Seeing that diplomats wanted to tone down the fight with AstraZeneca, the Commission set its sights on Britain’s government.
The next day, EU officials publicly threatened to block vaccine exports – a move likely to hit Britain’s imports of vaccines from Pfizer’s Belgian plant. And the Commission said it wanted to set up a mechanism that would require companies to seek authorisation before exporting vaccine doses.
On Friday January 30, it took a further step, threatening to trigger a clause that would block vaccines from reaching Northern Ireland – a British-run province that remained part of the EU internal market after the Brexit divorce.
Imposing restrictions on that border was potentially explosive: The Brexit talks had agreed to keep it open, to preserve the central plank of a 1998 peace deal ending 30 years of armed conflict in the province.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster called the EU proposal “an incredible act of hostility,” and EU officials soon admitted it was excessive.
By Sunday, the Commission had retreated on both fronts.
Commission President Von der Leyen announced in a tweet the bloc had achieved a “step forward on vaccines.” AstraZeneca had offered to increase deliveries, she said.
After a week of fighting and diplomatic confusion, the EU had secured just one million doses more than the firm’s initial sweetened offer, her tweet revealed.
By Francesco Guarascio, John Chalmers