AstraZeneca Plc Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot sought to deflect blame for a shortfall in Covid-19 vaccine deliveries to Europe, while reassuring lawmakers that his company is working to meet second-quarter targets.
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 coming months. Employees are working around the clock to increase production, but perfecting the process takes time and isn’t without setbacks, he said.
“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.”
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 during a session where executives from Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc., CureVac NV and Novavax Inc. were also questioned.
The EU has come under fire for its slow vaccine rollout, compounded by delivery delays from some of the key drugmakers, with countries like the UK., 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.
The export controls, however, have caused problems for CureVac NV, which faced a week-long delay shipping supplies to Latin America for the late-stage trial of its Covid shot. The German company is now expecting a potential approval for the shot to come in late May or June, whereas it until recently was targeting April. Trial data will probably be available in mid-April, CEO Franz-Werner Haas said at the hearing. Previously, he’d been expecting late March.
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.
Soriot was repeatedly asked about doses made in the UK. traversing to the European Union and vice versa, as lawmakers sought reassurance that citizens in the bloc are getting the agreed supplies.
Things got personal at one point in the hearing, when Finnish lawmaker 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 UK. 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 and Moderna 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.
100 Million Doses
Pfizer executive Angela Hwang said the company’s Belgian factory will be able to ship 100 million doses a month by June and said supplies were being delivered in line with contracts and the timing of regulatory approvals.
Hwang said Pfizer was not in favor of export restrictions like those introduced by the EU. The U.S. pharma giant needs 280 materials from 86 global sites in 19 countries to make its vaccine, she said.
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.
(Updates with CureVac delays in seventh paragraph)