The high-stakes clash between the European Union and AstraZeneca intensified Wednesday when E.U. officials accused the company of withdrawing from a planned meeting to discuss cuts to its supply.
Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, said AstraZeneca had canceled the Wednesday meeting with the health steering group. A company spokeswoman, Jenny Hursit, later denied that AstraZeneca pulled out of the talks.
AstraZeneca said last week that production delays would limit the number of doses supplied to E.U. nations, prompting criticism from European leaders, who threatened the company with legal action. Officials this week stepped up pressure on pharmaceutical companies operating in the E.U. and said vaccine makers could face stricter export controls.
“Let me be crystal clear: The 27 European member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments,” Stella Kyriakides, the E.U.’s health commissioner, said at a news conference Wednesday. “We are in a pandemic. We lose people every day.”
Kyriakides said AstraZeneca’s position that it is not obliged to deliver fully, because it signed a “best effort” contract, is invalid, pointing out that the E.U. invested upfront to get a binding commitment from the company to produce the vaccine for the bloc before regulatory approval. Europe has earmarked more than $480 million in funding for AstraZeneca but has declined to disclose how much of that has been paid.
A meeting Tuesday evening resulted in “insufficient explanations” from the company and “deep dissatisfaction” among E.U. member states, Kyriakides said. Officials were to meet with company executives again late Wednesday.
Amid the exchange of blame, European officials have called on AstraZeneca to publish confidential clauses in its contract. The company has said the reduced delivery to Europe is the result of lower-than-expected yields at a European manufacturing site. Chief executive Pascal Soriot described it as “really bad luck” in an interview with Italy’s Repubblica news outlet.
European officials have said the company’s story is “inconsistent.” The fact that supply to the United Kingdom has not been disrupted has fueled anger in Brussels, where officials argue that any disruptions should be shouldered fairly and that there is no reason vaccine produced in the U.K. cannot be exported into the E.U.
A European Commission official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door negotiations, said Brussels is demanding that two British production sites be used to manufacture the vaccine for Europe because they are listed in the E.U.’s contract.
The public spat in Europe contrasted with President Biden’s promise that an additional 200 million doses of the two vaccines approved for use in the United States — the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and one made by the U.S. company Moderna — would be available by summer, bringing the total to 600 million doses.
Vaccinations in the United States are, for now, largely restricted to health-care workers and high-risk groups. Biden said he hopes the general public will have access by the spring, although aides called that prediction optimistic.
While worldwide infections have fallen in recent weeks, newer and possibly more easily transmissible variants of the virus that first emerged in the U.K. and South Africa are putting pressure on authorities to increase the pace of inoculations.
Vaccine makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have said their shots are effective against the new variants but offer less protection against the variant first identified in South Africa. Moderna said this week that it is developing a booster shot designed to safeguard against the new variants.
Despite the increased sense of urgency around vaccinations, states have complained since the U.S. vaccine rollout began in December that the promised numbers of doses have not arrived. But the federal allocations are expected to increase by about 16 percent in the coming week, and the Biden administration has directed federal officials to make it easier to enlist retired and working physicians and nurses to administer the vaccines.
A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll found positive news about Americans’ willingness to get those vaccines: 47 percent now say they would get inoculated as soon as possible or already have been vaccinated.
Still, authorities face an uphill battle in combating vaccine-related misinformation. In an internal document obtained by The Washington Post, Maryland health officials said that only about 58 percent of the doses allocated to nursing home staffers and residents had been administered, even though vaccination clinics have been conducted at every facility.
Nursing home workers’ wariness, providers and union representatives say, is fueled by online misinformation about the vaccine and historical mistrust of the medical system of which they are a part.
It was also unclear whether the boost in U.S. vaccine numbers will help with another Biden priority — returning schools to in-person learning. A CDC report released Tuesday concluded that schools have not been a major center of transmission. Prevention measures, including mask-wearing, appeared key to keeping schools safe.
While Biden stresses that reopening schools is a priority, Europe appears to be headed in the opposite direction and is increasingly closing them. Many European countries originally kept schools open much longer than in the United States, but they are now bowing under the pressure of a second wave of the virus and concerns about new, potentially more-transmissible variants.
Britain also heightened its travel restrictions Wednesday. People arriving there from at least 22 countries where the variants are spreading will be required to quarantine in hotels for 10 days at their own expense.
Elsewhere, tightened restrictions have sparked unrest. Calm returned to the streets of the Netherlands on Wednesday after three days of widespread rioting over a new nighttime curfew, the country’s first since World War II.
Rioters clashed with police in more than a dozen Dutch cities, torching vehicles, looting shops, and launching rocks and fireworks at officers. Bars, restaurants and stores have been closed as part of a months-long shutdown.
Karla Adam in London; Quentin Ariès in Brussels; Reis Thebault, Amy Goldstein, Emily Guskin and Scott Clement in Washington; and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.