AstraZeneca's surprise COVID-19 vaccine shortfall prompts Europe to press for answers

COVID-19 vaccine
AstraZeneca is facing questions about its COVID-19 vaccine supply shortfall. (Getty/Meyer & Meyer)

After AstraZeneca’s surprise announcement Friday that its first COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to Europe would be lighter than expected, angry government officials have been demanding answers.

In Italy, prime minister Giuseppe Conte said he’d consider “all legal steps” against the company, the Financial Times reports. Italy's first-quarter allotment had been cut to 3.4 million doses from 8 million, according to the report.

Following AZ's announcement Friday, European officials were set to meet with AstraZeneca executives on Monday to seek clarification, Reuters reports; one European official had called AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot ahead of the meeting. Europe has the power to review AstraZeneca's documents under their contract, and one official told Reuters that penalties aren't out of the question.

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The company was originally set to deliver 100 million doses to Europe in the first quarter, but the number has been reduced to 31 million, according to the reports. 

RELATED: Sorry, Europe: AstraZeneca follows Pfizer/BioNTech in cutting back EU vaccine delivery plans 

On Friday, a company spokesperson said via email there’s “no scheduled delay to the start of shipments” if the vaccine wins European approval, but “initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain.” 

“We will be supplying tens of millions of doses in February and March to the European Union as we continue to ramp up production volumes,” she said. 

AstraZeneca representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for clarification on Monday. The manufacturing issue is at a plant in Belgium operated by AstraZeneca partner Novasep, Reuters reports. 

RELATED: Pfizer and BioNTech, scaling up for 2B coronavirus vaccine doses, temporarily cut deliveries in EU, Canada 

While AstraZeneca's supply shortfall is hitting Europe particularly hard, officials in Australia are also warning of reduced supplies. The company had a "significant supply shock," Australian health minister Greg Hunt told reporters, as quoted by Reuters, and Australia will now shift to domestic production of the vaccine earlier than it had planned. CSL is on tap to help produce the AZ vaccine for Australia.

In Brazil, officials have started distributing doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that were made by the Serum Institute of India, according to reports.

Meanwhile, Europe is expected to authorize use of the vaccine later this week, Reuters reports, with initial vaccinations to follow in mid-February. 

The news comes after mRNA vaccine partners Pfizer and BioNTech temporarily cut deliveries to Europe as they worked to upgrade a Pfizer plant in Belgium. The companies are gearing up to deliver 2 billion doses globally in 2021, and in Europe, deliveries from the companies were set to resume as normal starting on Monday.