London, January 28 (Reuters) – Europe’s fight to secure COVID-19 vaccine supplies sharpened on Thursday when Britain demanded that it receive all the shots it paid for after the European Union asked AstraZeneca to divert supplies from the UK.
The EU, whose member states are far behind Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States in rolling out vaccines, is scrambling to get supplies just as the West’s biggest drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc due to production problems.
As vaccination centres in parts of Germany and France cancelled or delayed appointments, the EU publicly rebuked Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for failing to deliver even though the vaccine has not yet been approved by the bloc.
That drew a terse response from AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot who said the EU was late to strike a supply contract so the company did not have enough time to iron out production problems at a vaccine factory run by a partner in Belgium.
Britain, which has repeatedly touted its lead in the vaccine rollout race since leaving the EU’s orbit on Jan. 1, said its deliveries must be honoured.
“I think we need to make sure that the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered,” Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove told LBC Radio.
Asked repeatedly if the British government would prevent AstraZeneca diverting essential vaccine supplies from Britain to the EU, Gove said the crucial thing was that Britain received its orders as planned and on time.
The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up vaccines in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left.
The EU failed to make a breakthrough in crisis talks with AstraZeneca on Wednesday and demanded the drugmaker spell out how it would supply the bloc with reserved doses of COVID-19 vaccine from plants in Europe and Britain.
Tensions have risen against the backdrop of supply problems from the West’s other main vaccine supplier – Pfizer – which announced delivery hold-ups.
Israel is by far the world leader on vaccine rollout per head of population, followed by the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Bahrain and the United States. Behind them are Italy, Germany, France, China and Russia.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday it would have been a “great pity” if the United Kingdom had stayed in the EU’s vaccine programme rather than set up its own plan.
Britain has injected 7.1 million first doses of vaccines into arms, and is on track to deliver a shot to all over-70s, frontline medics and care workers, the clinically vulnerable and older care home residents – some 15 million people – by Feb. 15.
In the northern French region of Hauts-de-France, France’s second-most-densely-populated region, several vaccination centres were no longer taking appointments for a first jab. In several other French regions, some online appointment platforms closed booking options.
Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia last week postponed opening its vaccination centres until Feb. 8, while the state of Brandenburg has also had to push back vaccination appointments originally scheduled for the end of January due to delivery delays.
AstraZeneca’s Soriot told Italy’s La Repubblica the problem concerned manufacturing the vaccine itself: He said one site with large capacity was experiencing yield issues with the cell cultures that produce the vaccine in 1,000 or 2,000 litre batches.
He said there had been similar issues in the UK supply chain, but the UK contract was signed three months before the European deal, so there was an extra three months to fix the glitches.
Germany’s health minister said he expects the current shortage of coronavirus vaccines to continue well into April, as the government faced new criticism over the pace of its vaccination programme.
On Thursday, Germany’s top-selling Bild newspaper described the problems around procuring vaccines as a “scandal”.