The European Commission’s lawsuit against AstraZeneca over the pharmaceutical giant’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines began at a Brussels court on Wednesday, where the bloc’s lawyers pressed for immediate deliveries from all factories, including from the United Kingdom.
The legal case is the latest twist in an ongoing saga between the European Union and the Anglo-Swedish company, which has seen the pair at loggerheads over the latter’s alleged shortfall of deliveries to the bloc.
It comes as several European countries grapple with a third wave of COVID-19 infections.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine was envisaged as a central part of Europe’s vaccination campaign, and a linchpin in the global strategy to get coronavirus vaccines to poorer countries because it is cheaper and easier to use than shots produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
But cuts and delays in delivery of doses to the EU have weighed on faltering mass immunisation efforts within the bloc, which trails behind former member state the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel, among other countries, on vaccination.
Brussels has argued the disruption and supply issues amount to a failure by AstraZeneca to respect its contract with the EU. It has also accused the company of not having a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries.
AstraZeneca, for its part, has said the legal action by the EU is without merit and has pledged to defend itself strongly in court.
EU seeks immediate deliveries
Putting forward the EU’s case in the Brussels court, a lawyer for the EU executive commission told the hearing that the bloc was seeking immediate deliveries from all factories listed in its contract, including those in the UK.
A lawyer representing AstraZeneca told the hearing, which is public and is being conducted under an emergency procedure, that the company contract did not include an obligation to deliver vaccines from all production plants.
The company has plants in EU member nations Belgium and the Netherlands, and also in the UK, which helped develop the two-jab coronavirus vaccine.
“AstraZeneca deeply regrets the decision of the European Commission to start this legal action in relation with the COVID-19 supply agreement. We hope to resolve this dispute as soon as possible,” company lawyer Hakim Boularbah said.
The court session, which was the first in the case, ended after just more than an hour. The parties agreed to hold two further hearings on May 26.
The judge aims for a decision on the case in June.
The contract between AstraZeneca and the EU was signed by the European Commission on behalf of the bloc’s 27-member states last August.
Under its terms, the company had committed to making its “best reasonable efforts” to deliver 180 million vaccine doses to the EU in the second quarter of this year, for a total of 300 million in the period from December to June.
But AstraZeneca said in a statement on March 12 it would aim to deliver only one-third of that amount by the end of June – including about 70 million in the second quarter.
A week later, the European Commission sent a legal letter to the company, the first step of a formal procedure to resolve disputes.
AstraZeneca’s French-Australian boss Pascal Soriot has previously argued his company’s agreement with the EU only bound his company to make its “best efforts” to deliver the supply volumes referenced in the contract.
But the European Commission has said the rest of the contract shows greater legal responsibility than that.
EU diplomats and politicians have also pointed out that AstraZeneca has largely delivered promised doses to the UK, where the company is based.
The EU now relies mostly on the Pfizer-BioNTech jab for its immunisation campaign.