UPDATE 3-Vaccine dispute with AstraZeneca escalates as EU grapples with delays

* EU has been slower than others to rollout vaccinations

* Anglo-Swedish firm blames issues with its Belgian plant

* Third of planned EU doses to be delivered in first quarter

* Tensions show in confusion over EU-AstraZeneca meeting (Adds background)

BRUSSELS, Jan 27 (Reuters) - The European Union is asking AstraZeneca to publish the vaccine supply contract it signed with the bloc, an EU official said on Wednesday, amid frustration about delivery delays.

The EU has been slow to rollout vaccination programs compared with some other regions, especially former EU member Britain. The issue has been exacerbated by AstraZeneca and Pfizer both announcing delivery holdups in recent weeks.

Pascal Soriot, the French chief executive of the Anglo-Swedish drugsmaker AstraZeneca, told newspapers on Tuesday the EU contract was based on a best-effort clause and did not commit the company to a specific timetable for deliveries.

AstraZeneca, which partnered Britain's Oxford University to develop a vaccine, has said it was cutting supplies to the EU in the first quarter due to production issues at its Belgian factory. An EU official said the EU would receive 31 million doses in the period, or 60% less than initially agreed.

The EU has said this sudden revision was unacceptable and is pushing the company to find ways to deliver more. The EU deemed "inadequate" a subsequent offer to ramp up supplies in February and bring forward the first deliveries.

The EU has threatened to monitor future exports of COVID-19 vaccines in retaliation for companies announcing delays, although the EU trade commissioner ruled out any export bans.

Fraught relations showed up in confusion about the timing of a meeting between the EU and AstraZeneca.

An EU official said the firm had pulled out of a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, an Austrian minister then said it was set for Thursday, which was followed by an AstraZeneca statement saying it would go ahead on Wednesday as planned.

The EU contract with AstraZeneca is an advance purchase agreement for the supply of at least 300 million doses provided the vaccine is approved as safe and effective, with doses delivered in stages.

The EU official said on Wednesday details revealed by Soriot on production capacity and best-effort clause were confidential.

The official said the best-effort clause was standard in contracts with manufacturers of products in development.

"Best effort is a completely standard clause when you are signing a contract with a company for a product that does not yet exist," the official said. "Obviously you cannot put a completely legal obligation" under these conditions.

But the official said best effort meant the company had to show an "overall" effort to develop and deliver vaccines.

AstraZeneca said on Wednesday: "Each supply chain was developed with input and investment from specific countries or international organizations based on the supply agreements, including our agreement with the European Commission."

"As each supply chain has been set up to meet the needs of a specific agreement, the vaccine produced from any supply chain is dedicated to the relevant countries or regions and makes use of local manufacturing wherever possible," the firm added.

Philanthropist Bill Gates told Reuters the rollout of vaccines was a "super hard allocation problem" that was putting pressure on global institutions, governments and drugmakers.

"Every politician is under pressure to go bid for their country to get further up in line," Gates said.

"If you're a pharma company that didn't make a vaccine, you're not under pressure. But the ones who did make the vaccine - they are the ones being attacked," he said. "It's all very zero-sum."

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Ludwig Burger; Additional reporting by Francois Murphy and Kate Kelland; Editing by Nick Macfie and Edmund Blair)

01/27/2021 13:28

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