E.U. Sues AstraZeneca Over Missed Vaccine Deliveries

BRUSSELS — The European Union has filed a lawsuit in Belgium against the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca over what it says is a breach of contract in the company’s delivery of Covid-19 vaccine, the European Commission announced on Monday.

The bloc’s relationship with the company has soured rapidly since AstraZeneca said in January that it would not be able to deliver on its scheduled vaccine doses for the first quarter of the year, setting Europe’s vaccination campaign back by weeks as the commission, the E.U. executive branch, faced widespread criticism over a halting start.

“The commission has started last Friday a legal action against the company AstraZeneca on the basis of breaches of the advanced purchase agreement,” said Stefan de Keersmaecker, a spokesman on health issues for the commission. “The reason indeed being that the terms of the contract, or some terms of the contract, have not been respected and the company has not been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure the timely delivery of doses.”

Mr. de Keersmaecker said that all 27 E.U. member countries supported the move.

The company said in a statement on Monday that it regretted the E.U.’s decision to sue. It said that it had fully complied with the agreement it signed and would “strongly defend itself in court.”

“We believe any litigation is without merit,” the statement added.

The two parties had been engaged in a dispute arbitration effort, but the European Union decided to move ahead with a legal case. The contract is under Belgian law.

The European Union’s vaccine contract with AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company, was the first it signed, in August last year, and covers 400 million doses. So far, the company has delivered just over 30 million.

“We are making progress addressing the technical challenges and our output is improving,” the company said in its statement on Monday, but added that the improvements would take time to result in increased finished vaccine doses.

Production delays have been only one obstacle to the rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in Europe. Reports of a very rare but potentially serious blood clotting disorder in some people who received it have prompted a rise in hesitancy and a series of shifting national restrictions. The European Medicines Agency, the bloc’s drug regulator, said earlier this month that the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed its risks, but that it should carry a warning.

Last week, Johnson & Johnson paused and then resumed its vaccine rollout in Europe over concerns about similar rare side effects.

In an interview with The Times on Sunday, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the company had supplied only a quarter of what it had promised to the bloc, and had to deliver 200 million doses of vaccines by the end of this quarter.

She indicated that the European Union would not open talks over future supply. “At the moment, the company has a delay in delivering 200 million doses of vaccine by the end of the second quarter,” she said. “The number speaks for itself.”

The European Union is now pursuing the confrontation from a position of strength, after securing enough doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to reach its vaccination target in mid-July, earlier than hoped. It is also negotiating a massive contract with Pfizer for 1.8 billion doses over the next two years.

“We need to focus now on technologies that have proven their worth: mRNA vaccines are a clear case in point,” Ms. von der Leyen said, announcing the negotiations over the new contract.

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