In an unusual and potentially groundbreaking decision, French drugmaker Sanofi has said it will help bottle and package 125 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by its rivals Pfizer and BioNTech, while development of Sanofi's own vaccine faces delays. Meanwhile, tensions between the EU and vaccine maker AstraZeneca are growing after the company rejected Brussel's accusation it was late with its delivery of the drug.
The announcement came as delays or production problems for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and a vaccine from Britain's AstraZeneca have caused political uproar across the European Union.
The bloc's 27-nation vaccination effort has struggled to pick up speed, while more contagious virus variants are spreading fast and Covid-19 deaths are surging anew.
Sanofi's Frankfurt facilities will help with late-stage production of vaccines prepared by Germany-based BioNTech, including bottling and packaging, starting in the summer, according to a Sanofi official. Sanofi did not reveal financial details of the agreement.
Demand and supply problems
According to Thomas Cueni, director of the International Federation of Vaccine Manufacturers, 76 percent of the world’s vaccine manufacturing capacity is in Europe.
The French government has pressed Sanofi to use its facilities to help make vaccines from its rivals, given the extent of demand and supply problems.
“We are very conscious that the earlier vaccine doses are available, the more lives can potentially be saved,” Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said in a statement.
The deal was announced amid national soul-searching about the failure of French pharmaceutical heavyweights Sanofi and the Pasteur Institute to produce a COVID-19 vaccine so far, and after Sanofi faced a recent strike by French unions over job cuts.
'Not firm commitments'
Meanwhile, the standoff between the EU and AstraZeneca escalated after AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot rejected the EU’s assertion that the company was failing to honor its commitments. Soriot said vaccine delivery figures in AstraZeneca’s contract with the 27-nation bloc were targets, not firm commitments, and the company was unable to meet them because of problems in rapidly expanding production capacity.
“Our contract is not a contractual commitment, it’s a best effort,’’ Soriot said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “Basically, we said we’re going to try our best, but we can’t guarantee we’re going to succeed. In fact, getting there, we are a little bit delayed.”
AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from 80 million due to reduced yields from its manufacturing plants in Europe. The EU claimed Wednesday that it will receive even less than that — just one quarter of the doses that member states were supposed to get during January-March 2021.
The EU says it expects the company to deliver the full amount on time, and on Monday threatened to put export controls on all vaccines made in its territory.
Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for health and food safety, rejected Soriot’s explanation for the delays, saying that “not being able to ensure manufacturing capacity is against the letter and spirit of our agreement.”
Kyriakides said AstraZeneca should provide vaccines from its UK facilities if it it is unable to meet commitments from factories in the EU. The comments are certain to create tension in the UK, which completed its exit from the bloc less than a month ago.