European officials are demanding the seizure of millions of COVID-19 vaccines from a plant in Italy — said to be destined for the UK.
A French government official said on Wednesday that 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca 'Oxford' jab were found at the Catalent Pharma Solutions pharmaceutical bottling plant at Anagni near Cassino in Frosinone province, between Rome and Naples.
Italian newspaper La Stampa claimed the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant was trying to get round the European Union (EU) ban on vaccine exports to the UK and other non-EU countries.
The German government was quick to demand the doses be seized in a bid to right the listing "tanker" of the bloc's stumbling immunisation programme.
"Maybe there is an opportunity now to boost deliveries significantly, which is what the CEO had promised", a Berlin source said.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot has given assurances that the firm was not holding out on its contract with the EU, but there had been delays in getting its production the Netherlands and Belgium up to speed — resulting in deliveries of just 16.6 million doses so far out of an order of 300 million.
Meanwhile the UK has given more than 30 million doses so far, with almost half of those estimated to be of the Oxford jab. La Stampa claimed the 29 million doses were destined to be used as booster shots for the 15 million most-vulnerable to coronavirus in the UK — although 2.5 million have already had their second jab.
Underhand or Over the Counter?
The stockpile reportedly came to light after European commissioner Thierry Breton visited the Dutch AstraZeneca plant in Leiden, operated by HALIX, in early March. Vaccine serum from HALIX was sent to the Anagni site for packaging in glass vials, where it has been kept in refrigerated storage. Catalent bought the facility from British drug firm Bristol Myers Squibb last July.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has refused to allow the 5 to 6 million doses of the Oxford jab produced by HALIX every month to be used, saying it has not received enough data from AstraZeneca. But La Stampa claimed this was just a ruse to clear the shipments for UK, which it said has not erected any regulatory barriers to using supplies from the plant.
The newspaper also reported that the British government had sent experts to Leiden to help HALIX increase production there — a move bound to benefit the EU as much as the UK.
— Steven Swinford (@Steven_Swinford) March 24, 2021
Jab and Counterpunch
Last week the Commission threatened to block vaccine exports to the UK in anger at its rapid immunisation programme, which has reached over 40 per cent of the population compared to less than 10 per cent in the EU. Early this month the Italian government halted a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca jabs to Australia after consulting the Commission.
Meanwhile at least a dozen EU member states have halted roll-out of the Oxford jab following reports of blood clots in some recipients. Some 8 million doses of the vaccine, roughly half those delivered, remain unused across the bloc.
British Conservative MP John Redwood, a leading Eurosceptic, defended AstraZeneca form the "false accusations" from the EU.
— John Redwood (@johnredwood) March 24, 2021
But German MEP Peter Liese, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union, seized on the report to demand a further escalation of the 'Vaccine War' launched by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as cover for her botched handling of centralised vaccine procurement.
— Peter Liese MEP (@peterliese) March 24, 2021