The showdown between pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the European Union (EU) about a drastic downsizing in planned deliveries of Covid-19 vaccine showed no sign of respite on Wednesday night, following a crisis meeting between the two sides.
Last week, producer AstraZeneca angered the EU by announcing significant delays in its delivery of Covid-19 vaccine doses.
But yet another crisis meeting late on Wednesday between the European Commission, representatives of the 27 EU countries and AstraZeneca - the fourth since Friday - brought no solution to the table.
"We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule and request a clear plan from AstraZeneca for the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved for Q1," European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides tweeted after the talks.
"We will work with the company to find solutions and deliver vaccines rapidly for EU citizens," she added.
While no solution was presented, the meeting seemed to slightly ease tensions that had flared up in the preceding hours, with Kyriakides describing the tone as "constructive."
Kyriakides had earlier dismissed AstraZeneca's argument that the European Union had ordered its doses three months after Britain did, and could therefore not expect to receive the drug at the same time.
"We reject the logic of first come first serve. This may work in the neighbourhood butchers, but not in contracts," Kyriakides said on Wednesday afternoon, explaining that no priority clause was included their contract.
Low yields at the Belgium plant
AstraZeneca claimed that British production sites and chains were more efficient, and that low yields at a site in Belgium were to blame for delays to the 27-member bloc.
But Kyriakides said the company must fulfil its contract regardless: If more doses were produced in Britain, those should be used to meet obligations towards the EU, she said.
There was also nothing in the agreement about splitting up supply chains into factories producing for Britain and factories producing for the EU, she added.
The European Commission, which inked a contract in August for up to 400 million doses of the Oxford University-developed drug, has been livid with the firm since it announced the major hold-up last week.
The EU executive branch said it had expected 80 million doses by the end of March, but was now only promised 31 million.
The British-Swedish firm's chief executive Pascal Soriot appealed to the European public for understanding in an interview published late Tuesday, but stressed the firm is not legally tied to a certain timeline.
"It's not a commitment we have to Europe," Soriot said. Contractually speaking, he said, "we said we are going to make our best effort."
The EU has threatened legal action, but with the agreement's terms kept strictly under wraps, it is unclear on what contractual basis this would happen.
The third vaccine
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is widely expected to recommend AstraZeneca's jab for EU use on Friday - the third vaccine in the bloc's arsenal against the deadly respiratory disease.
The 27 EU nations are lagging behind Britain and the United States with their mass inoculation campaign.
For the EU, "the target is to deliver 17 million doses by February," Soriot told journalists in the interview, stressing that the vaccine was being produced for no profit.
The delays are caused by issues linked to the scaling-up of drug production at an EU site, according to Soriot - an explanation that has not satisfied EU officials so far.
"We've had also teething issues like this in the UK supply chain," he said. "As for Europe, we are three months behind in fixing those glitches."
EU capitals have also voiced their dissatisfaction with the company throughout the week.
Ahead of the talks on Wednesday night, EU officials stressed the company had to be more transparent both in terms of the source of the delays as well as delivery schedules beyond March.
"They are just giving us a few quantities for February, and a few quantities for March. But then there is darkness," the official said, explaining that the company was yet to indicate when it would catch up with the doses.
The spat comes as AstraZeneca has fiercely defended itself against claims reported in the German press that its vaccine is less efficient in the elderly.