A senior EU official has suggested the UK is trying to start a vaccine war, in a major escalation of the row over the supply of jabs to protect against Covid-19.
Brussels today published a partial copy of its contract with AstraZeneca, which the EU claims obliges the pharmaceutical giant to hand over doses made in plants in the UK.
The 41-page document – with many portions blacked out – states that AZ must use its “Best Reasonable Efforts” to manufacture 300m vaccine doses for the EU, with an option for 100m more.
It says that capacity for production will be “at manufacturing sites located within the EU (which for the purpose of this section … shall include the United Kingdom)”
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that this amounted to a commitment to deliver in full, while AZ insists that it is not committed to any timetable and that its separate contract with the UK gives Britain first claim on vaccines produced domestically.
“There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear,” von der Leyen told Deutschlandfunk radio. “AstraZeneca has also explicitly assured us in this contract that no other obligations would prevent the contract from being fulfilled.”
Downing Street made clear that Britain is not willing to accept interruptions to its supplies, saying it expected all contracts for vaccines which it has struck to be “facilitated”.
Meanwhile, Number 10 was at loggerheads with the Scottish government, as Nicola Sturgeon’s health secretary dismissed as “not credible” a UK minister’s claim that publishing details of expected vaccine deliveries would threaten national security.
Amid Tory accusations that the SNP-led Scottish government had failed to use all the doses supplied by the UK, Jeane Freeman said that the public had a “right to clarity” on the issue and it was “no longer tenable” for Edinburgh to hold back on publication.
It is understood that the UK government fears that public knowledge of the figures would put Britain at a disadvantage in its dispute with the EU, which is demanding the rerouting of AZ vaccines made in Oxford and Keele to make up for shortfalls on the continent.
Although London has signalled it is ready for dialogue with Brussels about the supply of doses, there is resentment in the EU over suggestions that the UK inserted a “Britain first” agreement in its own contract with AZ.
And Boris Johnson has faced charges of double standards for raising objections to a potential export ban on jabs produced in the EU at a time when the UK has banned the export of many drugs linked to coronavirus.
EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders raised the temperature in an interview on Belgian radio in which he suggested that London was stoking up the row.
“The EU has pushed to coordinate the vaccines contract on behalf of the 27 precisely to avoid a vaccines war between EU countries,” said Mr Reynders. “But maybe the UK wants to start a vaccine war.”
The UK is concerned that new powers coming into effect from today for the EU to block exports of pharmaceuticals to tackle Covid could interrupt its order for 40m Pfizer vaccines, produced at a factory in Belgium.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman refused to comment on the EU’s contract with AZ.
But he said: “We expect contracts to be facilitated.
“AstraZeneca has clearly stated they will be able to provide 2m vaccine doses a week and we’ve said we will get that to people as quickly as possible.”
The row was sparked by AZ’s announcement last week that it was cutting expected doses for the EU in the first three months of 2021 from 80m to 31m, following production difficulties at a separate plant in Belgium.
The surprise move infuriated Brussels, which is under intense pressure to step up the pace of inoculations, with just 2 per cent of EU residents having had their jab, compared to more than 10 per cent in the UK.
EU officials pointed to a sentence in the AZ contract in which the company says it is not under any obligation to others that would impede complete fulfilment of the agreement’s requirements.
The contract goes on to say that AZ may manufacture at facilities elsewhere to accelerate supply of the vaccine in Europe, provided that it gives prior notification.
But it does not make clear whether the Anglo-Swedish company is obliged to send vaccines produced in Britain to the EU.
One Commission official acknowledged that a legal challenge may not result in more vaccines being made available.
“The centre of gravity of opinion is more like: ‘let’s try and thrash out something with these guys’,” said one senior EU diplomat.