AstraZeneca scores win in Europe's COVID-19 vaccine lawsuit, saying it can easily beat court supply mandate

As Europe battled the COVID-19 pandemic and looked to AstraZeneca for a much-needed vaccine, officials there took an unusual step earlier this year of suing the company over supply shortcomings. But in a significant win for the drugmaker, a Brussels court mostly sided with the company in that case.

Friday, AstraZeneca said it “welcomed” a Brussels court’s finding, dismissing most of the measures sought by EU officials in their lawsuit over vaccine supplies. Instead of the 300 million doses Europe sought by the end of September, the court ordered AstraZeneca to ship 80.2 million doses. That's a target the company says it is on track to “substantially exceed.”

Further, the court found that Europe doesn’t have priority over other governments seeking COVID-19 vaccine doses. The ruling “acknowledged that the difficulties experienced by AstraZeneca in this unprecedented situation had a substantial impact on the delay,” the drugmaker said in a statement.

So far, AstraZeneca has shipped more than 70 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Europe. The company is the second-largest pandemic vaccine supplier to the EU, behind Pfizer, which so far has provided 233 million doses of its vaccine compared to AstraZeneca's 66 million.

Now, with the legal issue in the rear view, AstraZeneca said it looks forward to “renewed collaborations” with officials in Europe.  

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AstraZeneca entered the COVID-19 vaccine race in April 2020 through its partnership with the University of Oxford. The shot, dubbed Vaxzevria, progressed through early- and mid-stage testing without any issues reported but hit an early hurdle when investigators paused a phase 3 trial in the U.K. to investigate an "unexplained illness" in one participant. Then, a dosing error in the study raised additional questions.

That preceded a number of manufacturing and launch headaches for the drugmaker. After winning emergency approvals, the vaccine launch ran into supply shortfalls and safety concerns over rare blood clots following vaccination.  

While the shot is in use in many places worldwide, the setbacks resulted in the program losing ground to the mRNA shots from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. It isn’t yet clear whether AstraZeneca’s shot will score an authorization in the U.S.

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Despite the setbacks, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot has stood by the company’s efforts at every step. AstraZeneca is performing its pandemic vaccine work at no profit, and its European supply deal called on the company to make its “best effort” to ship doses, he has argued. More recently, in a May interview with the Financial Times, Soriot blasted “armchair generals who have opinions about everything.”