AstraZeneca's next COVID-19 vaccine headache? A lawsuit from the EU over supply shortcomings

AstraZeneca
The EU on Monday confirmed that it's moved forward with legal proceedings against AstraZeneca for failing to deliver its promised supply of COVID-19 vaccines. (AstraZeneca)

When word broke last week that the European Commission was weighing legal action against AstraZeneca over its COVID-19 vaccine delivery delays, it was unclear whether all member nations were on board. Now, the bloc is moving forward with approval from all its members.

The commission confirmed Monday that it had launched legal action against AstraZeneca late last week for failing to deliver its promised supply of COVID-19 vaccines and for not having a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries, a spokesperson told Reuters. The EU said the decision was unanimous among the 27-member bloc. 

AstraZeneca originally committed to sending Europe 90 million doses of its vaccine in the first three months of the year. But after struggling to get its supply chain up to speed, the company knocked that projection down to 30 million. 

The outlook hasn’t improved much since. AstraZeneca has said it'll deliver 100 million doses by the end of June, far short of the 300 million it originally committed. 

Defending his company back in January, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said the supply contracts call for the company to make its "best effort" to deliver. The deals don't require deliveries of a specific number of doses on a set timeline, he said at the time. 

RELATED: AstraZeneca again cuts coronavirus vaccine delivery targets in Europe

AstraZeneca said in a statement that the EU's legal proceedings were without merit, and the company will "welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible." 

"AstraZeneca has fully complied with the Advance Purchase Agreement with the European Commission and will strongly defend itself in court," the company said. 

The lawsuit is the latest hurdle in the volatile relationship between AstraZeneca and the EU. Just earlier this month, AstraZeneca told Reuters it held a positive meeting with the commission after it was reported that the drugmaker had not responded to an EU letter of complaint within a required 20-day time frame. 

Since then, however, the EU said it would not exercise options for 300 million additional doses of COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca and its rival Johnson & Johnson and will instead move toward using doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. 

Now, in the EU’s latest spat with AstraZeneca, the commission argues that the drugmaker hasn’t “been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy” to ensure the doses are timely delivered. 

"We want to make sure there is a speedy delivery of a sufficient number of doses that European citizens are entitled to and which have been promised on the basis of the contract," the spokesperson told Reuters.   

RELATED: EU preps legal action against AstraZeneca for COVID-19 vaccine shortfalls: report

At a meeting of EU ambassadors Wednesday, a majority of member states said they’d support the legal proceedings, Politico reported last week, citing six EU diplomats. At the time, however, not all EU members appeared to agree on the move. A handful of countries, including large members like Germany and France, raised concerns about the timing and purpose of the legal efforts, according to the report.

Some of the members felt it was unclear whether the lawsuit would result in AstraZeneca meeting its contractual agreements. On top of that, the public discord between the EU and AstraZeneca could further sow doubt about the drugmaker’s vaccine, Politico reported. 

For AstraZeneca, the lawsuit follows other challenges with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, including production hiccups and a probe into rare but serious blood clots.