Belgian health authorities announced they have inspected a pharmaceutical factory in Belgium to find out whether expected delays in the deliveries of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine are due to production issues.
The European Commission had asked the Belgian government to inspect the factory amid a heated public dispute between the 27-nation bloc and the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker.
EU officials are under tremendous political pressures because the bloc’s vaccine rollout has been much slower than that of Israel or Britain.
The Novasep’s factory in the town of Seneffe is part of the European production chain for the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from the 80 million it had planned due to reduced yields from its manufacturing plants in Europe.
The EU claimed on Wednesday that it will receive even less than that — just one quarter of the doses that member nations were supposed to get during January-March 2021.
According to the EU, the Belgian factory is one of four AstraZeneca sites included in the contract sealed by the European Commission and the company to produce vaccines for the EU market.
“The Novasep teams worked hard to meet its obligations to AstraZeneca with unprecedented speed and commitment,” Novasep said in a statement to The Associated Press.
“Manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine is a pioneering process in terms of scale, complexity and quantity. We have worked closely with AstraZeneca and conducted regular and coordinated reviews of the production processes to ensure the active drug substance was delivered on time and met the highest standards for quality and stability.”
France Dammel, a spokesperson for Belgium’s health minister, said experts from the federal medicine agency inspected the Novasep site. They will now work with Dutch, Italian and Spanish experts before delivering a report in the coming days.
Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for health and food safety, said AstraZeneca should provide vaccines from its UK facilities if it is unable to meet commitments from factories in the EU.
After a third round of talks with AstraZeneca aimed at resolving the dispute on Wednesday evening, Ms Kyriakides regretted the “continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule” and urged AstraZeneca to come up with a clear plan for a quick delivery of the doses reserved by the EU for the first quarter.
A spokesman for AstraZeneca said after the meeting that the company has “committed to even closer coordination to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring this vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic”.
The EU, which has 450 million people, has signed deals for six different vaccines, but so far regulators have only authorised the use of two, one made by Pfizer and another by Moderna.
The EU’s drug regulator will consider the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.
Meanwhile, Germany’s health minister said there are at least “10 hard weeks” ahead amid difficulties in getting large quantities of vaccines.
Health Minister Jens Spahn, who faces political pressure over the slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign, wrote on Twitter that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 state governors should hold a special meeting to discuss vaccine strategy.
Mr Spahn said vaccine manufacturers also should be invited to “explain how complex production is”. He stressed that “the quality must be very good” in order to protect people.
Mr Spahn wrote that “we will go through at least another 10 hard weeks with the scarcity of vaccine”.
Germany’s current lockdown, its second, was extended until February 14.
Some 1.67 million people in Germany have received the first dose of the vaccine.
New infections are falling, but officials are worried about the impact of coronavirus variants such as the one first detected in Britain.
Germany’s interior minister said the country is planning to implement a ban on travel from so-called “mutation areas”.
Horst Seehofer told reporters on Thursday that the government hoped to decide by Friday on restrictions on travel from Portugal, Britain, South Africa, Brazil and possibly other areas in the coming weeks.
He suggested there could be exceptions made for the flow of goods, but said exceptions for things such as tourism were out of the question.
The country’s disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute, would determine which countries should be determined “mutation areas”, Mr Seehofer said.
He refused to speculate on how long the restrictions could be kept in place.