Jacquelyn Martin/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
MEPs directed their anger at AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot as they sought greater clarity on vaccine deliveries and explanations for ongoing shortages.
Soriot took part in a virtual hearing of the European Parliament on Thursday afternoon alongside other CEOs from the pharmaceutical companies that have signed vaccine contracts with the European Commission, including CureVac, Novavax and Moderna.
The AstraZeneca chief said the company will provide the EU with 40 million doses in the first quarter of this year. This represents a marked decrease from the original commitment, which ranged between 80 and 120 million doses for the same period.
The vaccine supply reductions provoked a public row with EU chiefs in late January.
On Thursday the anger from the dispute was still palpable in the questioning from MEPs, who directed the majority of inquiries — as well as the harshest tone — towards Soriot.
But the executive stuck to his script and delivered technical answers focused on the specificities of vaccine production.
‘How is it possible you have no clue?’
The grilling began with Dutch MEP Esther de Lange, from the European People’s Party, who matter-of-factly asked Soriot whether the company had pre-existing contracts that linked EU-based production to the British supply of doses.
De Lange also wanted to know why AstraZeneca announced such significant cuts to its EU deliveries given the similarities between the EU and UK contracts.
“Did you knowingly enter into contractual obligations you knew you could not deliver on to all parties?” she asked.
Soriot argued the UK government had become interested in the vaccine candidate “very early on” and offered money to fund its development and also its production in the UK and the Netherlands.
He declared that, at the present moment, the “overwhelming majority” of doses produced inside the EU, including in the Dutch plant, are being sent to EU countries.
The CEO explained that the reason for the delays in supply was the low yield achieved in the EU plants. The yield refers to the number of doses the company can extract from each litre inside the bioreactors. Soriot said that some sites have been delivering 5,000 doses per litre, while others, mainly in the EU, just half of that.
“The yield is improving,” Soriot said numerous times during the hearing.
“By Q2, we [will] actually catch up to the volume we had projected originally to produce. And those sites will be a variety of locations around the world.”
At one point during the virtual meeting, the AstraZeneca chief said that even if the company diverted “the entire supply” of the United Kingdom and sent it instead to the EU, it would not make a big difference for the bloc’s vaccine roll-out.
“How is it possible that you have no clue?” said Finnish MEP Silvia Modig, who called Soriot a “piece of soap” over his alleged conflicting statements in recent weeks.
Another argument that Soriot often used in his defence was the fact that, contrary to the British government, the EU only funded the manufacturing of the vaccine, not its development. Soriot’s insistence on this point seemed to indicate that funding has played a key role in the divergent speed of deliveries.
Soriot also emphasised the need to transfer technology, which involves sending engineers to sites in order to train personnel, a process he described as complex and lengthy.
Asked if sharing patents with third parties could help increase production and fix the shortages, the CEO said the question of delays wasn’t about “sharing, but about scaling up”.
The CEO endorsed the UK’s strategy of prioritising the first dose of the vaccine, citing a recent study in Scotland that shows the first AstraZeneca jab cut risk the risk of hospitalisation by 94 per cent.
Growing confidence in deliveries
Besides Soriot, the first part of the hearing also featured Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna; Franz-Werner Haas, CEO of CureVac; and Stan Erck, President and CEO of Novavax.
CureVac announced its vaccine candidate was already in phase three trials and expects to gain conditional market approval by late May or early June. The company hopes to produce 300 million doses throughout this year and one billion in 2022.
CEO Haas said preliminary trials showed its vaccine was effective against the variants first detected in South Africa and the UK.
Novavax, whose vaccine has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency, projects to put out around 150 million doses per month, for an annual total of two billion.
Moderna expressed similar confidence in its ability to increase output, aiming to put out 1.4 billion doses in 2022.
“European supply is one of Moderna’s biggest commitments to date,” Bancel said.
The CEOs made frequent references to the “non-stop” and “unprecedented” effort taking place inside their companies, which are expected to provide jabs for the entire world.
They also talked about “start-up issues” related to the need to raise capital, boost capacity and use the novel mRNA technology at a massive scale.
The session was co-hosted by Pascal Canfin, Chair of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and by Cristian Silviu Bușoi, Chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) of the European Parliament.
“We have won on research, now we must win on mass production,” Canfin said, who reminded the CEOs of their contractual commitments made to the 430 million EU citizens.