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AstraZeneca CEO defends EU vaccine delivery in parliamentary grilling

AstraZeneca's Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot sought to deflect blame for a shortfall in covid-19 vaccine deliveries to Europe this year, while reassuring lawmakers that his company is working to meet targets for the second quarter.

Speaking remotely to a European Parliament hearing, Soriot said his company would deliver 40 million doses to the European Union in the first quarter, with the volume set to rise in the coming months. Soriot said employees are working around the clock to increase the amount of vaccines extracted in production, but that perfecting the process takes time and isn't without setbacks.

"Whether you manufacture cars, planes or indeed vaccines, you often have issues with manufacturing," Soriot said. "Typically in our industry we have years to refine the process. Here we didn't have that time, we didn't have that luxury, we had six months. The alternative would have been to be ready later. Those are the challenges we are facing."

AstraZeneca will look at tapping its global supply chain to make up for some of the shortfall, including production in the U.S., Soriot said. He was repeatedly asked on the panel about doses made in the U.K. traversing over to the European Union and vice versa, as lawmakers sought reassurance that citizens in the bloc are getting the agreed supplies.

The EU has come under fire for its slow vaccine roll-out, compounded by delivery delays from some of the key drugmakers, with countries like the U.K., Israel and the U.S. pushing ahead.

In January, the bloc engaged in a bitter, public spat with Astra after the company said it wouldn't be able to deliver the doses promised in the first quarter because of production issues. The event led the EU to introduce tighter controls on the export of vaccines from the region to ensure other countries weren't being given preferential treatment.

Relations between Astra and the EU threatened to deteriorate again this week over a cut to second-quarter delivery, but the company said it is working to increase productivity in its European supply chain to ensure that the 180 million doses promised would be delivered.

Things got personal at one point in the hearing, when Finnish MEP Silvia Modig accused Soriot of being "like a piece of soap, impossible to get hold of."

Despite the slow start, the EU looks to be catching up with the U.K. and U.S. and should be able to vaccinate 75% of its adult population by the end of August, about two months earlier than previously forecast, according to London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd. The bloc's supply outlook has brightened in recent weeks on new deals with Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. to secure hundreds of millions of additional doses.

One hurdle the EU must counter still is public take-up. Reluctance to be vaccinated, particularly with the shot from Astra and partner the University of Oxford, has led to doses going unused. Questions around its efficacy and restrictions on its use among the elderly in many EU countries have created confusion. U.S. trial results from Astra, expected in the coming weeks, should provide more clarity. Soriot reiterated at the hearing that his vaccine dramatically cuts the rate of hospitalization.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen told lawmakers this month she expects 300 million vaccine doses to be delivered to the bloc next quarter -- a significant increase on the estimated 18 million doses delivered in January, 33 million in February and 55 million in March.

The European Parliament hearing follows a similar session in Washington earlier this week, where pharma executives assured lawmakers that vaccine supply bottlenecks should soon ease. CEOs from Moderna, CureVac and Novavax were also at the EU hearing Thursday.

Published : February 26, 2021

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Suzi Ring, Tim Loh