by Frank Schnittger
Sat Feb 20th, 2021 at 04:52:24 PM EST
CNN is reporting that the contracts signed by Astra Zeneca with the UK and the EU are essentially the same, and both contain the "best efforts" clause Astra Zeneca has used in an attempt to weasel out of its contractual commitments to the EU. But the real bombshell is that it appears that the UK contract was signed the day after the EU contract, and not 3 months before, as AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot has claimed.
AstraZeneca's vaccine contract with the UK is based on 'best efforts,' just like its deal with a frustrated EU
AstraZeneca's contract to supply the UK with 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses commits it to making "best reasonable efforts," the same language used in its deal with the European Union, which critics blamed for the bloc's faltering inoculation program.
The details of the contract are contained in a redacted version published online without fanfare months ago, long before the UK and the EU became embroiled in a bitter dispute over vaccine supply.
British officials had earlier declined to provide the contract to CNN, making no mention of the redacted version, and have repeatedly refused to give details on the country's vaccine supplies, citing "security reasons." A junior UK government minister said in a recent interview that publishing the contract would risk national security.
Yet in response to a Freedom of Information request from CNN, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) this week provided CNN a link to the redacted 52-page contract, which had been published on a website that hosts details of UK government contracts. Details like the number of doses to be delivered to the UK and the dates of delivery have been redacted.
The redacted contract has, technically, been publicly available since at least November 26, according to the date the page was last edited. BEIS this week confirmed the same date of publication to CNN. But the link is difficult to find on the government website without using precise search terms and it appears to have gone largely unnoticed.
European Union leaders and AstraZeneca engaged in a public war of words in late January after the company advised the 27-country union that it would deliver tens of millions fewer doses than agreed by the end of March. At the same time, it appeared to be making good on its deliveries to the UK, heightening tensions between Westminster and Brussels, fresh from their Brexit divorce.
The EU then published its own redacted agreement with AstraZeneca. A comparison between the two contracts is now possible.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told Italy's La Repubblica at the time that its agreement with the EU was "not a contractual commitment. It's a best effort," referring to language used in their contract.
Its contract with the UK, however, also states that company only needs to make its "best reasonable efforts" to stick to the original agreed delivery schedule, which the company could "update and refine" when necessary. The agreement says the company must notify BEIS at least 30 days before each delivery with a "firm and final" schedule.
Where there may be a significant difference is in which markets the drug company is prioritizing. Soriot confirmed to La Repubblica that his company had agreed to supply the UK before other markets, saying it was "fair enough" because the UK had reached an agreement with AstraZeneca earlier than the EU. But the UK's official contract is actually dated August 28, one day after the EU's contract.
AstraZeneca's contract with the EU is essentially the same as the UK's in terms of language, with some differences to reflect that the EU was procuring on behalf of 27 nations, according to David Greene, a senior partner at the law firm Edwin Coe, who has read the two redacted contracts, and has not seen the unredacted versions.
"There are many similarities between these two contracts, including the best reasonable efforts terms. It's hardly surprising because they were made at the same time," he said.
He explained that the term "Best Reasonable Efforts" was essentially an escape clause to offer some legal protection to AstraZeneca in the event it could not deliver to its agreed schedule.
"However, what they can't do, on the face of it, is choose one contracting party over another. So they can't say to the EU 'I'm not going to deliver to you because I'm going to deliver to the UK,' and similar. That's always been the case."
If all of this is true, the real question which arises is why Astra Zeneca is prioritising its UK market before the EU. Given it is a UK headquartered firm it is possible that some behind the scenes sweeteners were offered to management, which could explain the "national security" excuses given for not releasing the unredacted contract.
However the decision to prioritise the UK could have long term implications for Astra Zeneca and EU UK relations.
Firstly the efficacy of the Astra Zeneca Vaccine has been reported at only 60% compared to 95% for the Pfizer and Moderna Vaccines, leading Irish healthcare staff to question why they are being given a less efficient vaccine.
Secondly the efficacy of the Astra Zeneca Vaccine against the English, South African and Brazilian variants is being increasingly questioned.
Thirdly, there is increasing resistance to being vaccinated with the Astra Zeneca vaccine because its side-effects are reported as being much more common and severe than previously reported.
Scepticism over Oxford vaccine threatens Europe's immunisation push
The vaccine, subject of an acrimonious tug-of-war between its British-Swedish manufacturer and the European commission last month, is being described by German media as a "shelf warmer" as only about 17% of doses delivered to the country have been administered so far.
According to the German disease control agency's monitoring, 129,021 doses of a delivered 736,800 had been administered by Thursday this week
Side-effects that can follow a shot of the Oxford-developed vaccine, which were reported in clinical trials, are also causing logistical problems in its use among medics.
Karl-Dieter Heller, the director of the Herzogin Elisabeth hospital in Braunschweig, told Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that he had decided to vaccinate his staff only in smaller groups and on Fridays, after 40% of one group called in sick with flu-like symptoms after receiving their jab on a Thursday.
Heller said none of his staff had fallen seriously ill and all were able to return to work on the Monday after.
Other countries have reported similar problems. In Sweden's Sörmland and Gävleborg regions, health authorities temporarily paused vaccinations after a quarter of workers injected with the AstraZeneca shot called in sick the following day, but added the programme would resume with the same vaccine the following week.
In south-west France, a hospital in Périgueux asked in an open letter that the AstraZeneca vaccine be replaced with shots from Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer after 50% to 70% of injected staff experienced side-effects.
At a general hospital in the Austrian capital, Vienna, 500 members of staff signed a protest letter after finding out they would receive the AstraZeneca shot rather than the BioNTech/Pfizer one.
What is being forgotten in all this controversy is that much of the UK's lead in vaccinations is based on it having earlier access to the Pfizer Biontech vaccine manufactured in Belgium thanks to its use of the emergency authorisation procedure to licence its use before the EU.
However if the WHO recommendation to prioritise the vaccination of high exposure and high vulnerability populations before the general population is to be heeded, Belgium and the EU could be justified in halting the further export of the Pfizer vaccine until all its high exposure and vulnerability population have been vaccinated.
The UK could continue its vaccination programme with the Astra Zeneca vaccine, but that company's failure to deliver on its EU contract would then matter much less. After all, if it is "national security" considerations which have been at the forefront of the UK's vaccination effort, the EU could be justified in apply similar considerations to its own vaccination programme.
UK spokespeople continue to come out with guff about being smaller, faster and nimbler in rolling out its vaccination programme post Brexit, but it appears the real reason for their being able to get a head start is a murky, behind the scenes deal with Astra Zeneca.
With doubts about the Astra Zeneca vaccine increasing, the EU might be well advised to let the UK keep its almost exclusive access to their Astra Zeneca supplies and retain the Pfizer vaccine for their own use. The longer term message for the EU, is never rely on outside supply chains for critical supplies, particularly where outside powers might invoke "national security" as a reason for restricting availability.