AstraZeneca has agreed that almost all the Covid vaccine doses made in the Netherlands over which the UK has made a claim will stay in the EU, as Brussels’ vaccine tsar said Europe was now on track for an “almost normal” tourist season.
Thierry Breton, the European commissioner leading the bloc’s vaccine taskforce, said the chief executive of AstraZeneca had confirmed to him that all but 1.2m to 1.5m doses at the Dutch plant would now be delivered to EU member states.
The Dutch factory, where the Anglo-Swedish firm’s subcontractor, Halix, makes the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, produces around 7.5m doses a month, over which the UK claimed it had a contractual right during recent talks.
Whitehall officials had proposed a 50/50 split but Breton, a French former finance minister, said Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s French-born CEO, had recognised that all but one batch of the jabs would go to EU residents.
“I organised a between the CEO of Halix and the CEO of AstraZeneca, and finally the CEO of AstraZeneca recognised that all the production of Halix was planned to support the EU delivery. That is all I can tell you,” Breton said.
“The CEO of AstraZeneca told us that in fact since February all the production of Halix has been planned to be delivered to Europe except, he said, one batch, to be very precise.
“AstraZeneca has a commitment: they have committed 70m in quarter two [of the financial year] and I know that 70m is AstraZeneca’s production, more or less, of Halix and Seneffe [a plant in Belgium],” Breton added. “This is why I think that they will deliver this commitment, but I just remind you that at the beginning the contract was 180m, so they reduced drastically what they could do.”
A spokesperson for AstraZeneca declined to comment. A UK government spokesperson said: “We are continuing to make exceptional progress through the rollout of our vaccination programme and remain confident in our supplies. The details of any commercial vaccine supply agreements between national governments and AstraZeneca are commercially sensitive and a matter for those two parties.”
Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, had been in talks until late last Thursday in Brussels with aides to the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, seeking a deal on the Dutch-made jabs and wider issues around vaccine production.
The stockpile at the plant in Leiden, in South Holland, had been seen in Whitehall as a key part in making up a shortfall in production in the UK and deliveries from India, where the government has in effect imposed an export ban on AstraZeneca doses made by a subcontractor, the Serum Institute.
Oxford University, which was given more than £65.5m in additional UK government funding last year to work on its vaccine, has been in a commercial relationship with the Halix plant since April 2020, but Breton dismissed suggestions that this had any bearing on rights to the doses.
“In the discussion I had at the beginning with the CEO of AstraZeneca, I understood, he told me, that the ramp up of Halix has been financed by the British government,” Breton said. “And it happens that when I went to visit the site and I asked how much they’re received from the British government, the chairman and the CEO were there and they told me ‘zero’. So in fact, I asked three times a question and I got three times the same answer.”
The commissioner added that the performance of the 27 member states’ vaccine rollout would have been superior to that of the UK if they had not had issues with AstraZeneca, which was only able to produce 29.8m doses in the first quarter of this year – less than 25% of its initial commitment.
“If AstraZeneca had delivered the way it should have delivered to us, like I understand it did in the UK, we will have been exactly in the same situation, even really better, than the UK today, which did get a great organisation through the NHS to vaccinate people,” Breton said.
He said that despite the issues in the first few months of the year, the EU was on target for its goal of fully vaccinating 70% of the adult population by 14 July.
The EU expects to be supplied with 360m vaccine doses in the second quarter, with a production capacity of 2bn by the end of the year. Breton, a former CEO of the French IT company Atos, claimed this would allow people to enjoy something close to a normal summer holiday in just a few months’ time.
He said: “We will be in a much better position probably to travel again, to have a social life and to hopefully, because this is also part of my responsibility, to have an almost normal tourist season, which is very important. This is why I’m pushing so hard on member states to tell them that they need to organise themselves.”