What started out promisingly has now turned into a debacle. After the Astrazeneca vaccine was accompanied by debates about its medical efficacy and side effects from the outset, the dispute over distribution is now causing upheaval at the political level. The European Union, Great Britain and the company itself no longer trust each other. There are indications that the world’s largest free trade area will take measures that would not have been thought possible weeks ago.
On Friday, several EU countries initially insisted on corrections to export conditions. The heads of state and government agreed that vaccine exports to third countries should be more strictly monitored. The news agency “Reuters” even reported that EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton had imposed an export ban on the Astrazeneca vaccine until the company had fulfilled its supply agreements.
“We have the tools and will make sure that everything stays in Europe until the company meets its commitments again,” he is quoted as saying. “We have a problem with this company.” How did the dispute escalate to such an extent?
EU has been reviewing export restrictions for days
The federal government has long viewed protectionist interventions due to the globally intertwined supply chains of the pharmaceutical industry critically. But in the meantime, according to reports, the attitude is also changing in Berlin. According to the “Handelsblatt”, the EU Commission had already been debating stricter rules for vaccine exports in the past few days.
In future, the decision to authorize exports will be made dependent on two criteria: reciprocity and proportionality. Reciprocity therefore means that the EU checks whether the country that is to receive supplies restricts exports itself. Proportionality is understood to be what the epidemiological situation there, the vaccination quota and the vaccine stocks look like.
In the case of Astrazeneca, however, even tougher regulations soon seem to apply. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has already had Astrazeneca vaccinated, warned the EU of the long-term consequences of a policy of blockade. The head of Astrazeneca himself, Pascal Soriot, is silent. He is “like a bar of wet soap. You can reach for it however you want, you keep escaping us, ”Finnish left-wing MEP Silvia Modig threw at him at a video conference with MEPs. The Dutch Christian Democrat Esther de Lange accused the 61-year-old Frenchman of behaving like an “unreliable used car dealer”.
Non-profit contract with Oxford University
The path of the vaccine had begun promisingly. Oxford University wanted to develop a vaccine that was easy to use and should not be hijacked by the rich countries of the world. As a producer, an exclusive contract was signed with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca, which therefore signed a non-profit agreement, but of course benefited from the state pre-financing.
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But the company has been in public criticism since the first studies. Even if all experts were unanimous in promoting the use of the vaccine, water level reports from the studies caused uncertainty. After the vaccination was even temporarily stopped because of possible side effects and it became known in bits that Astra Zeneca was far behind its delivery promises, trust continued to erode.
This week alone, Astrazeneca’s problems became apparent again. On Tuesday, new data sparked debate over the credibility of the studies presented by Astrazeneca. However, all experts continue to emphasize the high effectiveness of the vaccine.
Where do the 29 million vaccine doses come from?
The trust of the authorities in the promises of the group, however, eroded a day later when 29 million vaccine doses of the group turned up in a bottling plant near Rome. The EU’s accusation: Astrazeneca wanted to hide the vaccine doses and deliver them to Great Britain – although the EU states were also entitled to the vaccine. The reports were rejected in London, but at the same time British Health Minister Matt Hancock said the London contract with Astrazeneca would “trump” that of the EU.
The EU has a treaty that guarantees “best efforts” on the part of the vaccine manufacturer, while London has assured exclusivity. Astrazeneca had actually promised the EU to deliver 300 million units by the end of June. Most recently, the group had capped this to 100 million. According to the company, 13 million of the doses found in Italy should go to the international vaccination initiative Covax, the remaining 16 million to the European Union.
Even if Astrazeneca says that the vaccine doses found in Italy were produced outside the EU, many experts assume that they were filled in the Halix factories in the Netherlands. Because Astrazeneca only applied for approval of this plant from the EU on Wednesday of this week – although the plant has been producing an estimated five million cans per week since December.
It is not known why the application was delayed so long. The suspicion is in the room that Halix wanted to hold off the EU with it in order to be able to produce even more for Great Britain. On Friday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) also issued the official approval. “We now expect the vaccines produced at this facility to be shipped to EU member states in the next few days as part of Astrazeneca’s contractual commitment and commitments to the citizens of Europe,” said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides to.
The way leads to Germany
But with Halix’s work, the search for the origin of the 29 million vaccine doses from Italy also leads to Germany. Because the company Halix, founded in 2012, is a subsidiary of the Dutch company HAL Allergy, which in turn belongs to the Düsseldorf-based consulting and investment company Droege Group; one of the largest German family businesses. Weltbild-Verlag, the online portal Buecher.de and the ventilator manufacturer Servona are also part of the Droege Group.
In response to Tagesspiegel inquiries about the connection to the vaccine fund in Italy, the company pointed out that Halix would conduct all operational business “on its own”. In addition, the “modern state-of-the-art production facility” is emphasized. Indeed, Halix has earned a good standing in the industry. The company has a “good reputation as a contract manufacturer”, says pharmaceutical expert Wilbert Bannenberg to “Spiegel”.
Actually, Astrazeneca is considered reliable
In fact, many industry experts can only partially understand the criticism. “The known delivery problems are clearly based on this allocation system,” says Roland Bodmeier, Professor of Pharmacy at the Free University of Berlin, when asked. In the past, Astrazeneca was not noticed as a flighty partner. Compared to some companies from Asia, for example, Astrazeneka has so far been considered very reliable. “Let’s wait and see if the EU will sue,” he says. “If not, that speaks for itself.”
From the point of view of Petra Thürmann, Medical Director of the Helios University Hospital Wuppertal and member of the Advisory Council for the Assessment of Developments in the Health Care System, Astrazeneca’s inexperience in the field of vaccine production could be a reason for the delays: “That could play a role For example, one underestimated how long it would take to carry out all the check-ups beforehand and perhaps also need certain suppliers. “
But where else does Astrazeneca produce its vaccine besides Halix? Two plants are in Great Britain. No vaccine from them has yet reached the EU. A third factory in Seneffe, Belgium, has technical problems time and again, which is why less than expected production is being produced. Astrazeneca also produces in Germany. In Dessau, the company IDT Biologika manufactures cans for the pharmaceutical company. So far nothing is known about secretly produced supplies.