AstraZeneca falls behind on vaccine supply agreements

Abigail Lee, Science & Technology Editor

AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company partnered with Oxford University, has been struggling to deliver its COVID-19 vaccine as promised. 

On January 22, 2021, AstraZeneca announced that several European countries would receive fractional amounts of the vaccine than expected due to manufacturing delays. This announcement has caused a stir in the EU, where vaccine distribution has already been slowed due to delays with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

According to Fortune, AstraZeneca will ship just 31 million doses of the expected 80 million to the EU in the first quarter of this year. Austria will receive 600,000 of the previously agreed upon 2 million, and Italy will receive 3.4 million instead of 8 million doses. The EU has a deal with AstraZeneca that allows access to 400 million doses. 

European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said, “The answers of the company have not been satisfactory so far” after a meeting with AstraZeneca, reports AP

The EU has made a plan to vaccinate 70% of the adult population by the end of summer, and some European leaders have threatened legal action against the company if efforts are hampered. The Italian Prime Minister has threatened to sue both AstraZeneca and Pfizer. 

According to Euractiv, the European Council Chief Charles Michel said, “The EU intends to enforce the contracts signed by the pharmaceutical industry.” 

The update on European shipments not only poses a risk to countries in the EU, but developing countries as well, which already have a disadvantage to vaccine procurement. Wealthy countries have secured the majority of available vaccines, creating the potential for unequal vaccination rates and reverberative global economic fallout, according to the New York Times. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been noted for its potential success in the developing world because it is comparatively cheaper than other vaccines and requires only normal refrigeration. 

“Countries from India to Brazil to South Africa have made big bets on the shot from the celebrated British university and the U.K.-Swedish drugmaker,” according to Time Magazine

Slow distribution in wealthy countries could mean even slower distribution in countries that were blocked access to initial vaccine deals. 

AstraZeneca is also facing scrutiny for its seemingly arbitrary vaccine pricing to South Africa, a country that is paying $5.25 per dose while EU countries are paying about $2.16. AstraZeneca announced in the past that prices would not be higher than $3 per dose to ensure fair access. Although South Africa is set to pay lower prices starting in March per another deal with the company, many feel this discrepancy warrants an explanation. 

UK organization Global Justice Now campaigns for just conditions in the Global South. Its director Nick Dearden said, “South Africa’s desperate predicament is a symptom of the shocking failure of rich countries to deal with this virus in a fair and effective manner” and demanded answers from AstraZeneca. 

When Oxford University began vaccine development, it had decided on donating the vaccine rights. Eventually, advised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the university instead sold the rights to AstraZeneca, reported Kaiser Health News. While publicly committed to a $3 cap, AstraZeneca is not technically bound to low pricing. 

AstraZeneca’s vaccine shortage has created a demand for transparency from pharmaceutical companies as well as highlighted the implications of the current hierarchy of worldwide vaccine rollout. 

As CNN put it, “The delays aren’t just a problem for Europe.”