The European Union took AstraZeneca to a Belgian court Wednesday over the drug company’s failure to deliver tens of millions of COVID-19 doses it promised — slowing the EU’s efforts to kickstart its vaccine campaign.
After weeks of souring relations and tough rhetoric against AstraZeneca, Europe is now turning to the legal system to force the Anglo-Swedish company to deliver the 180 million COVID-19 vaccine doses it has promised by July. Right now, reports say it is on track to deliver less than half that amount.
Stefan De Keersmaecker, spokesman for the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm charged with procuring COVID-19 vaccines for the bloc — outlined its argument.
"We believe that the company has not respected the terms and obligations of the contract, which is a violation which we ask the courts to recognize as such,’ said De Keersmaecker. "In any case, in the context of the emergency procedures, we have claimed, indeed, that we want the court to order the company to deliver 90 million additional doses, in addition to the 30 million already delivered in the first quarter."
The EU initially planned to use AstraZeneca as a linchpin in its vaccination campaign. Delivery delays were a key reason for its much-criticized slow start. Added to that were concerns about rare blood clots associated with the vaccine, leading some member states to limit or scrap its use altogether.
The EU has now turned to other COVID-19 vaccines, especially the more expensive Pfizer-BioNTech, to supply hundreds of millions of doses in the months to come. But that is not stopping the bloc from wanting AstraZeneca to deliver on its contract. It also accuses the manufacturer of favoring Britain, where it claims it has delivered most of its promised doses.
AstraZeneca’s lawyer Hakim Boularbah told reporters the drug company deeply regretted the European Commission’s decision to go to court and hoped the dispute would be resolved as soon as possible. The company says its contract with the EU binds it only to ‘best reasonable efforts’ in delivering doses on time — although the Commission says there’s more to it.
“The contract itself makes it fairly clear that the doses that were to be delivered under best reasonable efforts… the contract also specifically says that the parties won’t sue one another. So it’s a little strange the Commission is going this route in the first place," said Scott Marcus, senior fellow at the Bruegel economic thinktank in Brussels.
He fears this court case could have repercussions for the EU’s business with other vaccine makers.
"I really think a lot of the cases have to do more with political damage control than with doses actually being needed,’ said Marcus.
Meanwhile, the bloc's vaccination campaign is picking up steam. The European Commission says it’s on track to meet its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults this summer.