The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vaccine shortages, and a fight with AstraZeneca, threaten E.U.’s campaign after only a month

People wait at a newly opened coronavirus vaccination center at the Messe Berlin trade fairgrounds in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Pool/Reuters)
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BERLIN — In an old hangar at Berlin's historic Tempelhof Airport complex, lines of pristine white cubicles with newly hung curtains sit empty.

Built at breakneck speed with aims to vaccinate 3,000 people a day, there is little sign of life except a lone guard at the door. The scene is a testament to the crumbling ambitions of early vaccination programs in Germany — and across the European Union.

One month after its launch, the coronavirus vaccination campaign in the 27-nation bloc is already in crisis. Vaccine shipments have been delayed, and E.U. leaders are under fire for mishandling the ordering process. In some areas, inoculation programs have ground to a halt.

Some initial delays have stemmed from temporarily reduced shipments by U.S.-based Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, which makes up the bulk of vaccine doses being delivered in the European Union. Other vaccines that Europe was counting on have been held up in trials.

But it is the disappointing production news from another company, the British Swedish vaccine maker AstraZeneca, that has unleashed a new level of fury and set off alarms across Europe about the difficulty of easing the pandemic — now with the added anxiety about emerging variants of the virus that could bring new surges.

Europeans are now looking enviously even at the United States and former E.U. member Britain, where campaigns are off to far better starts.

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Part of the reason is that the E.U. was behind the United States and Britain in authorizing the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, another U.S.-based vaccine provider. E.U. planners also banked on the idea that AstraZeneca would help fill in any gaps toward its vaccine goal of covering 70 percent of the adult population by the end of the summer.

Now, AstraZeneca is saying its delivered doses in the first quarter will be 60 percent less than expected, citing production problems at a site in Belgium. 

'Far too slow'

That revelation has caused a remarkably swift turnabout in how Europeans feel about the drugmakers, which were hailed as world-savers a month ago.

Italy's foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, spoke of "fighting" against pharmaceutical companies. And in the centers where vaccines are distributed, there is a realization that targets drawn up last month are already outdated.

AstraZeneca's reduced production "would strongly delay the vaccination of the populace," said Sandro Giuffrida, who helps manage the vaccination program in a part of Italy's southern Calabria region.

The clash between the E.U. and AstraZeneca intensified Wednesday, as European officials said that the company’s explanations over the delays had been “inconsistent” and demanding that their contractual obligations be met.

“Far too slow,” said Albrecht Broemme, the head of Berlin’s vaccination program, as he oversaw vaccinations at another Berlin vaccine center that is providing jabs around a third of its planned capacity. “It’s far too slow.”

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It should not be seen as a “speedway” race between different countries, he said, “but we have to hurry up because of the changing of the virus.”

Germany has already lowered expectations, saying that anyone that wants a vaccine should have a date for their first jab by mid-September, rather than promising they will actually be vaccinated.

And Broemme said that his targets for vaccinating the vulnerable by March have already slipped. At the current rate, he hopes that people over 75 years old will have received their first shot by April, at best.

European frustrations have been amplified because European countries have provided funding for the development and production of both the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer vaccines.

Brussels says it had earmarked more than $400 million in funding for AstraZeneca but has declined to disclose how much of that has been paid so far.

“Let me be crystal clear, the 27 European member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments,” Europe’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said in a news conference Wednesday. “We are in a pandemic, we lose people every day.”

Questions over priorities

But even if deliveries come on track, industry insiders lay some of the blame at the feet of European bureaucrats who spent months negotiating on price despite knowing that those who ordered first would receive some preference when it came to delivery.

The E.U. put in its initial orders for Pfizer vaccine doses later than Britain and the United States. AstraZeneca has said that as Britain signed first, it would get priority on shipments.

“Everyone is looking for someone to blame,” said one person with knowledge of the contract negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them. The person said that the Pfizer delays had been created as the company scrambles to increase production capacity to meet an additional January order from the E.U. Amid growing pressure over a lack of orders, Brussels ordered 300 million more E.U. doses earlier this month.

“We reject the logic of first come, first served,” Kyriakides said. “That may work in a butcher’s shop, but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”

AstraZeneca has said the reduced delivery to Europe is caused by having lower yields than expected at a Belgian manufacturing site. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica — part of a blitz of the European media — AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soroit described it as “really bad luck.”

“Actually, there’s nothing mysterious about it,” he said. “And quite honestly, I mean, we’re not doing it on purpose. I’m European. I have Europe at heart. Our chairman is Swedish, is European. Our CFO is European. Many people in the management are European. So we want to treat Europe as best we can.”

Europe's demands

Now Brussels is demanding vaccines for the E.U. be exported from AstraZeneca’s British production sites to help meet Europe’s shortfall. At the same time, the E.U. is bolstering export controls on vaccines manufactured in the bloc to keep them from leaving.

AstraZeneca’s reduction, in locked-down countries desperate for a way out of the pandemic, triggered a realization that vaccination campaigns might prove more complicated — and more emotionally trying — than expected.

Italy, for instance, had been counting on AstraZeneca to supply more doses than any other drugmaker in the first half of 2021.

Before resigning this week, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had said that vaccine delays were causing “enormous damage” to Italy and the E.U. He said Italy stood to receive 3.4 million doses from AstraZeneca in the first part of the year rather than 8 million. He called the changes “unacceptable.”

“We had the vaccines ready within months, which is nothing less than a miracle,” said Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. “And now, we are sort of shipwrecking for distributing and administrating a vaccine, which is unbelievable.”

And some point to the bigger picture. Only one of the world’s 29 poorest countries has begun vaccinating, with uneven distribution a threat to bringing the virus under control. “We are talking about a pandemic which is a worldwide problem,” Broemme said.

“Of course everybody has to take care of their own, but we should do it with more common sense,” he said.

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.

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