A row between the EU and the pharmaceutical multinational AstraZeneca (AZ) threatens thousands more people’s lives from coronavirus (Covid-19). It’s also provided an opportunity for politicians to attack the Irish Protocol, which helps ensure the Good Friday Agreement can’t be jeopardised by Brexit.
The contract between the EU and AZ is being interpreted differently by each side. In August 2020, the European Commission (EC) stated that its Advance Purchase Agreement with AZ meant that:
all Member States will be able to purchase 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with an option for further 100 million doses, to be distributed on a population-based pro-rata basis.
However, earlier this month AZ announced it intended to cut deliveries of the vaccine in the EU. Instead of the initial order of 80m doses, it would deliver 31m by the end of March.
Basis of the row
According to the Guardian, AZ blames the shortage of its vaccine on “production problems” at its Belgian facility. But it reportedly argues that, in any case, it’s “contractually obliged” to meet UK demands first. Indeed, while referring in the same breath to “our friends in Europe”, UK cabinet minister Michael Gove clarified that: “the really important thing is to make sure our own vaccination programme proceeds precisely as planned”. Moreover, EU officials suspect that the AZ vaccines produced in Belgium are, contrary to EU expectations, being exported to the UK.
In a wide-ranging interview with la Repubblica, AZ CEO Pascal Soriot explained:
It’s not a commitment we have to Europe: it’s a best effort, we said we are going to make our best effort. The reason why we said that is because Europe at the time wanted to be supplied more or less at the same time as the UK, even though the contract was signed three months later.
As soon as we can, we’ll help the EU. I mean, as a company we are half Swedish and half British. In fact, we’re global, of course, but we are European as much as we are British.
As for the Pfizer vaccine, according to Huffington Post the UK will get the 40m doses it’s ordered “by the end of the year”. It’s also claimed that so far the company has delivered five million of those doses. But given the row between AZ and the EU, the question arises as to whether Pfizer can now fulfil the UK’s order.
More deaths threatened
The problem, of course, is all about getting enough of the vaccines manufactured and delivered to help stem the pandemic. Shortages will undoubtedly impact the UK and EU vaccine programmes, and therefore directly affect people’s health and lives. Already some EU countries have had to pause or suspend their vaccination programmes because of shortages.
It appears Brussels now intends to compensate for AZ’s delivery problems by limiting the export of the Pfizer vaccine, which is manufactured within the EU. Now the British Medical Association has warned that the second Pfizer vaccine dose may not happen at all, if there’s a 12-week wait between doses.
Or as the Guardian bluntly puts it:
Should the UK become reliant on home-produced vaccines, securing herd immunity through the vaccination of 75% of the population could be delayed by nearly two months from 14 July to 1 September putting thousands of lives in danger
Irish protocol threatened
The EU-UK row also threatened a ‘frictionless’ Irish border and potentially the Irish Protocol. That’s because the European Commission (EC) invoked Article 16 of the protocol, as part of its plan to safeguard vaccines leaving the EU. However, after phone calls from the Irish taoiseach Micheal Martin and condemnation from Belfast and London, the EC back-tracked on that threat – though perhaps not entirely:
Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries to be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider… using all the instruments at its disposal.
But the damage may have been done. Referring to invoking Article 16 by the EU, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, commented:
This unilateral action was clearly unwise, ill-judged and totally unnecessary. I welcome the fact the decision has now been reversed.
And former Democratic Unionist Party MP lord Nigel Dodds warned that the EU threat was a “hostile act”, adding:
They [the EC] were prepared, and they still are, to reserve the position that they will in the future if necessary, invoke Article 16 in order to create a hard border in the island of Ireland, for vaccines to help people get through a pandemic.
Yet equally hostile was UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s threat to invoke the same article only weeks ago:
Second dose timing concerns
Meanwhile, concerns remain about the efficacy of vaccines if a second dose is delayed beyond what’s recommended: