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How the EU and AstraZeneca ended up in court, and what’s next

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BRUSSELS: The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for breaching its contract to supply COVID-19 vaccines, and for not having a “reliable” plan to ensure deliveries within deadlines.

A first hearing in the case will be held at the Brussels Court of First Instance on Wednesday from 9 a.m.

The proceedings will be public and conducted under an emergency procedure, which means they could be concluded in a matter of weeks, the European Union’s Executive Commission said.

HOW DID IT COME?

The EU’s decision to sue AstraZeneca came after the company repeatedly cut supplies to the 27-nation bloc, contributing to major delays in vaccine deployment in Europe, which have lagged behind those from Great Britain and the United States.

As part of this contract, drawn up in Belgian law, the company has undertaken to make its “best reasonable efforts” to deliver 300 million doses of vaccine from December 2020 to June 2021, including 180 million in the current second quarter.

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However, the company said in a statement on March 12 that it would aim to deliver only a third of that total 300 million, of which around 70 million in the second quarter.

A week later, Brussels sent a legal letter to AstraZeneca, in the first step of possible legal proceedings.

WHAT IS ASTRAZENECA SAYING?

AstraZeneca says the EU lawsuit is unfounded, argues that it has complied with the contract and is committed to a strong defense in court.

WHAT ABOUT THE EU?

EU officials say the aim of the lawsuit is to force AstraZeneca to deliver more vaccines than the number it has said it wants to deliver.

The EU wants as much of the promised 300 million doses as possible, but would settle for 130 million by the end of June, an EU source close to the talks told Reuters.

Brussels will also want AstraZeneca to explain to the court how it spent more than 224 million euros ($ 270 million) granted by the EU last September to buy ingredients for vaccines, and for which the bloc said the company had not provided sufficient documents confirming the purchases. .

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If successful in court, the EU would send a warning to other vaccine suppliers. Pharmaceutical Johnson & Johnson has warned the EU it may not deliver the 55 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine it has pledged to deliver in the second quarter.

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WHAT ARE THE RISKS FOR THE EU?

Some Member States were initially reluctant to sue AstraZeneca on the grounds that it would take too long and, rather than speed up deliveries, would only exacerbate tensions with a company they still rely on for their vaccination campaigns.

If the EU loses its case in the Brussels court, it would be a public relations blow in addition to criticism of its handling of vaccine purchase agreements and vaccine deployment.

How much is the EU still relying on ASTRAZENECA?

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The AstraZeneca vaccine developed by the University of Oxford was supposed to be the mainstay of the EU’s vaccination campaign for the first half of this year.

However, the EU has now distanced itself from the company due to supply issues and concerns about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

The bloc has waived an additional 100 million doses of AstraZeneca it had the option of purchasing under the contract signed last August, and now relies mainly on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to inoculate at least 70% of adults of the EU by the end of July.

Yet while the AstraZeneca vaccine has been linked to very rare cases of blood clots, the EU pharmaceutical regulator has recommended its use to contain the spread of COVID-19.

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