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Why has AstraZeneca reduced its projected vaccine supplies to the EU?
AstraZeneca warned the European commission on Friday that there would be a significant shortfall in the promised 100m vaccine doses this quarter, of up to 60%. It says this is due to a technical issue: not enough vaccine is being produced by the main plant making the supplies destined for Europe, which is in Belgium.
Making vaccines is not like building houses, where you can add a few more bricks to a wall if it’s too short, they say. This is a biological process and it’s not possible to be certain how much vaccine is going to be made once production is under way. The yield varies.
In this case, there appears to have been a low yield from the cells dividing in the bioreactors in the Belgium plant. The same could happen in any of the other factories around the world making the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, including the UK.
AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, spoke to EU president Ursula von der Leyen about this, telling her they would have to cut their supply of vaccines to Europe.
That went down badly in Europe, where there are already tensions over the low numbers immunised with the two jabs licensed so far – from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. The UK is thought to have immunised 10% of its residents, and the EU just 2%. The EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said AstraZeneca must live up to its contractual obligations.
Will AstraZeneca dispatch extra doses to Europe from its vaccine production sites in the UK?
This looks unlikely or very difficult. AstraZeneca has committed to delivering 2m doses a week to the UK as part of its order for 100m doses in total. That is pushing capacity fairly hard and depends on no unforeseen issues arising, such as poor yield as in Belgium or other issues such as batch quality.
What can the European commission do?
There are tacit threats of vaccine wars. The commission could take measures to block the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – which is made in Europe – from being dispatched to the UK. Kyriakides said Brussels would now insist on being notified of any exports of vaccines from EU sites.
The precedent is personal protective equipment (PPE). Back in March, the commission required member states to give export authorisations to those seeking to export PPE out of the EU “in order to ensure adequacy of supply in the union in order to meet the vital demand”.
So the new mechanism might be a register of exports – and the addition of a need for export authorisations by member states for vaccines. The German health minister has been taking a hard line, but it is uncertain what the commission will now do.
Would this impact the UK?
Yes. The government likes to say it has ordered 357m doses of vaccine in total. That’s from the seven separate vaccines it has bought. But only three have so far been authorised by the UK regulator. Moderna’s vaccine, of which the UK bought 17m doses, has been licensed but supplies are not expected until April.
So for the ambitious vaccination programme to proceed at the hoped-for speed, supplies of both the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine need to arrive at a steady pace. The UK has ordered 100m doses of AZ’s vaccine and 40m of Pfizer’s in total.
How big are concerns about supply more broadly?
This is the second supply hitch. The first was Pfizer slowing down supplies in order, it said, to upgrade its plant and be able to produce more vaccine.
There will be other problems. Sometimes it will be to do with the amount of vaccine that can be supplied, and sometimes about quality. These would go unnoticed in normal times, and be resolved – but now the whole world is watching, and desperate to get hold of the vaccines.
Source: The Guardian
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