SENEFFE (Reuters) - A plant in Belgium said to be the main cause of big cuts in AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the European Union said on Wednesday it had complied with all its obligations under a contract it has with the Anglo-Swedish firm.
The apparent dispute could lead to further EU pressure on AstraZeneca to deliver more doses in the winter, as its COVID-19 vaccine began being rolled out in the 27-nation bloc this week.
The factory, which U.S. firm Thermo Fisher Scientific acquired from Novasep in January, has been identified as the cause of the cuts by AstraZeneca in internal meetings, several EU officials have said.
“We have complied with all the contractual requirements we have with AstraZeneca,” Thermo Fisher’s vice president for the EU, Cedric Volanti, told a news conference on Wednesday, when asked about possible production problems the plant had faced.
AstraZeneca on Jan. 15 announced cuts in its supply of vaccines to the EU in the first quarter, which EU officials said amounted to a 60% reduction to 31 million doses through March.
The company declined to comment on Wednesday on Thermo Fisher’s remarks. In a public statement it had said the drop in expected doses was caused by a lower than anticipated yield, or the amount of vaccine that can be made from base ingredients.
EU officials repeatedly said AstraZeneca had told them that the problem had been caused by production issues at the factory in Belgium. AstraZeneca has never denied this but has also never publicly accused the Belgian plant.
Volanti declined to comment on the number of doses the company has committed to producing for AstraZeneca and underscored that the change of ownership had had no negative impact on the production capacity of the factory.
When asked whether the Belgian plant, located in Seneffe at an hour drive from Brussels, sold doses to Britain, Volanti said the company sends vaccines to an Italian facility that bottles them before delivering to clients.
He added that the timing of deliveries depended on AstraZeneca.
EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, who leads an EU task force to expand COVID-19 vaccine production, said he was confident about the production capacity of the Thermo Fisher plant.
After the supply cut announced in January, which followed an earlier downward revision of its initial 120 million-dose delivery target for the first quarter, AstraZeneca raised its commitment to the EU to 40 million doses through March from 31 million.
The company has not said from where the additional doses would come.
The EU has said that increase was a positive first step, but urged the company to further ramp up its immediate deliveries to the bloc, which has a contract for 300 million doses and options for another 100 million.
In meetings with the EU, AstraZeneca said it could not send doses from factories in Britain because of contractual obligations to London.
Breton declined to comment on whether AstraZeneca could further raise deliveries by the end of March but said output from a factory producing COVID-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca in the United States would go “almost entirely” to Europe.
The Commission had so far said that doses for the EU were meant to come from four factories, one each in Belgium and Germany and two in Britain.
Separately on Wednesday, AstraZeneca announced a partnership with German firm IDT Biologika to speed up output of finished COVID-19 vaccine in the second quarter.
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; additional reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Jan Harvey and Steve Orlofsky
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