In an interview on Friday, Thierry Breton said that “zero” doses made in the EU would be sanctioned for delivery to the UK until AstraZeneca fulfilled its contract with the bloc.
The French former finance minister said that after a slow start, an “extremely rapid” increase in European production was now enabling EU nations to step up their vaccination programmes, giving him confidence that the bloc will meet its target of full inoculation for 70 per cent of adults by July, and allowing it “an almost normal tourist season” this summer.
Comparing the EU and UK programmes to “the fable of the tortoise and the hare”, he said European programmes were forging ahead while Britain’s jab campaign appeared to be flagging. He suggested that the UK should be grateful to European workers supplying its vaccine programme.
There was no immediate response from the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals giant to Mr Breton’s assertion that the company had acknowledged that all but 1.2-1.5 million doses of vaccine produced at the Halix plant in Leiden, the Netherlands, as well as the plant in Seneffe, Belgium, were for the EU.
The plants have been at the centre of a “vaccine war” between London and Brussels, with the UK insisting it has first claim on AstraZeneca production under the terms of contracts signed last year.
Mr Breton said: “I organised a video teleconference between the CEO of Halix and the CEO of AstraZeneca, and finally the CEO of AstraZeneca recognised that all the production of Halix was planned to support the EU delivery. That is all I can tell you.
“The CEO of AstraZeneca told us that in fact since February all the production of Halix has been planned to be delivered to Europe except, he said, one batch, to be very precise.”
He added: “AstraZeneca has a commitment. They have committed 70 million in quarter two and I know that 70 million is AstraZeneca’s production, more or less, of Halix and Seneffe.”
EU nations have so far administered only about 19 jabs per 100 people, compared with 55 out of 100 in the UK.
Mr Breton blamed the lag on supply issues, saying: “If AstraZeneca had delivered the way it should have delivered to us, like I understand it did in the UK, we will have been exactly in the same situation, even really better, than the UK today, which did a great organisation through the NHS to vaccinate people.”
He suggested that the UK’s policy of leaving three months between the first and second doses of vaccine meant it had pulled ahead in terms of early inoculations but may struggle to match the EU when it comes to providing the full protection of two jabs.
“The British policy of prioritising first doses was completely understandable, but it means it now has to find second doses, and in a hurry,” he said. “I don’t want to make anyone anxious, we will of course do all we can to meet their needs, but we also have certain constraints in Europe.”
While the first phase of the UK’s vaccination rollout was “hugely impressive”, he said Britain was “starting to realise that one dose is not enough, that you also need second doses – and that, to a large extent, it will be dependent on Europe.”
In a barbed remark aimed at Boris Johnson, Mr Breton said: “I won’t suggest to the prime minister that he says thank you – that’s not my role. But maybe a little signal to the women and men now working night and day in 53 factories across Europe to help supply the UK would be welcome.”
Britain, the EU and AstraZeneca have been in talks since it emerged that 21 million vaccine doses produced on the continent had been exported to the UK, with none coming the other way. Brussels toughened export restrictions, with a requirement for countries receiving EU products to show “reciprocity” by sharing their output.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Producing vaccines is an international endeavour and the UK is proud to be playing a leading role in the global effort to develop and distribute the coronavirus vaccine.
“We are continuing to make exceptional progress through the rollout of our vaccination programme and remain confident in our supplies.
“The details of any commercial vaccine supply agreements between national governments and AstraZeneca are commercially sensitive and a matter for those two parties.”