The European Union has sued AstraZeneca over what the bloc has described as delays in shipping hundreds of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines, a sharp escalation of a longstanding dispute between the bloc and the maker of one of the world’s most important vaccines.
AstraZeneca has said that it would be able to deliver only a third of the 300 million doses that European officials had been expecting by the end of June. As a result, European officials said on Monday that they believed AstraZeneca had broken its contract, and that they were seeking speedier deliveries than the company said it could muster.
The two sides’ relationship had grown acrimonious in January when AstraZeneca slashed its expected deliveries for the first quarter of the year, setting back the bloc’s vaccination campaign by weeks as cases picked up across the continent and political leaders faced scorching criticism for inadequate planning.
For AstraZeneca, whose cheap and easy-to-store shot is being used by 135 countries, the lawsuit could create further difficulties in a bruising stretch. No company had been as instrumental in the race to vaccinate poorer countries around the world, but AstraZeneca has been buffeted in recent weeks by the discovery of an exceedingly rare, though serious, side effect that has prompted restrictions on its use in parts of Europe.
At issue in the legal dispute was whether AstraZeneca had done everything in its power to meet its delivery schedule. Pascal Soriot, the company’s chief executive, has said that the contract required only that it make its “best efforts” to deliver the purchased doses on time.
Vaccine production is a notoriously fickle science, with live cultures needing time to grow inside bioreactors, for instance. In an effort to supply doses not only to richer nations that had purchased them well in advance, but also to poorer nations, AstraZeneca had partnered with manufacturing sites around the world, rather than relying on only a few factories, as Pfizer and Moderna have.
AstraZeneca, which developed the vaccine with the University of Oxford, has also said that the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, finalized its contract months after Britain did, giving the company less time to iron out any manufacturing difficulties.
Legal experts said that the “best efforts” language in the contract raised the burden on the Europeans to prove that AstraZeneca did not act diligently enough to supply the promised doses. But they also said that it did not entirely insulate the company from being deemed in breach of contract.