EU Again Says AstraZeneca Favoring U.K., Others With COVID Vaccine Deliveries, Files Lawsuit

The European Union faced vaccine producer AstraZeneca in a Brussels court on Wednesday, accusing the company of favoring the U.K. and other nations instead of upholding a promise of deliveries to the EU's 27 member states.

A contract between AstraZeneca and the EU's European Commission was signed for 300 million doses to be distributed among all 27 countries, with an option for a further 100 million. Though the doses were scheduled to be delivered throughout 2021, the EU says only 30 million were sent during the first quarter. The company increased deliveries for the second quarter and is set to provide 70 million doses, although the commission says the promise had been for 180 million.

EU lawyer Rafael Jafferali said in court that AstraZeneca had violated the contract by sending 50 million doses meant for the EU to other countries. The EU has repeatedly said there is no issue with the quality or safety of the vaccine, which was approved by the EU's drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Ukraine AstraZeneca Vaccine
A medical worker draws up a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in a syringe during the vaccination of people in an outpatient clinic in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 7. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Jafferali told the court that the company now expects to deliver the total number of doses by the end of December, but he added that "with a six-month delay, it's obviously a failure."

He asked the court to impose a fine of 10 million euros ($12.2 million) per infraction to the company, and to force AstraZeneca to pay 10 euros per dose for each day of delay as compensation for breaching the EU contract.

His main argument is that AstraZeneca should have used production sites in the bloc and the U.K. for EU supplies as part of a "best reasonable effort" clause in the contract, adding that the European Commission had agreed to pay 870 million euros for the shots.

Charles-Edouard Lambert, another lawyer on the EU team, said AstraZeneca decided to reserve production at its Oxford site for Britain.

"This is utterly serious. AstraZeneca did not use all the means at its disposal. There is a double standard in the way it treats the U.K. and member states," he said.

The EU also accused the company of misleading the European Commission by providing data lacking clarity on the delivery delays.

"The information provided by AstraZeneca did not allow us to fully understand the situation before mid-March 2021," Jafferali said.

While the bloc insists AstraZeneca has breached its contractual obligations, the company says it has fully complied with the agreement, arguing that vaccines are difficult to manufacture and it made its best effort to deliver on time.

Lawyers for the company will address the court later Wednesday.

As part of an advanced purchase agreement with vaccine companies, the EU said it invested 2.7 billion euros ($3.8 billion), including 336 million ($408 million), to finance the production of AstraZeneca's serum at four factories.

The long-standing dispute drew media attention for weeks earlier this year amid a deadly surge of coronavirus infections in Europe, when delays in vaccine production and deliveries hampered the EU's vaccination campaign.

Cheaper and easier to use than rival shots from Pfizer-BioNTech, the AstraZeneca vaccine developed with Oxford University was a pillar of the EU's vaccine rollout. But the EU's partnership with the firm quickly deteriorated amid accusations it favored its relationship with British authorities.

While the U.K. made quick progress in its vaccination campaign thanks to the AstraZeneca shots, the EU faced embarrassing complaints and criticism for its slow start.

Concerns over the pace of the rollout across the EU grew after AstraZeneca said it couldn't supply EU members with as many doses as originally anticipated because of production capacity limits.

The health situation has dramatically improved in Europe in recent weeks, with the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths on a sharp downward trend as vaccination has picked up. About 300 million doses of vaccine have been delivered in Europe—a region with around 450 million inhabitants, with about 245 million already administered.

About 46 percent of the EU population has had at least one dose.

Fanny Laune, another lawyer from the European Commission's legal team, insisted the case needs to be treated urgently despite vaccination campaigns picking up across the bloc. She said other producers in the EU vaccine portfolio have experienced delays in deliveries and could still be hampered by production problems.

She added that several EU countries have based their vaccine strategy on the AstraZeneca shots and that five member states won't be able to reach the targets set by the EU by the end of June if the drugmaker doesn't provide the promised doses in time.

"If this legal action allows to save just one life, it justifies an urgent ruling," Laune said.

In total, the European Commission has secured more than 2.5 billion of vaccine doses with various manufacturers, but is now shying away from further orders with AstraZeneca. It recently sealed another major order with Pfizer and BioNTech through 2023 for an additional 1.8 billion doses of their COVID-19 shot to share between the bloc's countries.

A judgment is to be delivered at a later date. In addition to the emergency action, the European Commission has launched a claim on the merits of the case for damages for which a hearing hasn't yet been set by the court.

EU takes on AstraZeneca in court
Stacks of documents are placed on a table at the start of a hearing in the European Commission versus AstraZeneca case at the main courthouse in Brussels on May 26. The European Union is demanding immediate delivery of COVID-19 shots that the 27-nation bloc insists were already due. Virginia Mayo/AP Photo