Brussels - The European Union has issued an angry warning to pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca over its unexpected delay in delivering millions of doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the bloc.
The British-Swedish company's announcement "is not acceptable to the European Union," EU Commissioner for health Stella Kyriakides said Monday after a meeting of member state representatives and the firm.
"The European Union will take any action required to protect its citizens and rights," she stressed.
Kyriakides did not elaborate on what action Brussels might take, but she said Brussels would propose a "transparency mechanism" to track shipments of vaccine exported from the EU to non-member countries.
The unusually blunt message underscored the threat facing the 27-nation EU as it tries to ramp up so far underpowered vaccination programmes as more contagious coronavirus variants threaten a looming third wave of the pandemic.
Last Friday, AstraZeneca said it would not meet its contractual delivery commitments to the European Union because of unexplained "reduced yields" in its European supply chain.
That came a week after US group Pfizer said it was also cutting early delivery volumes of its vaccine produced with German firm BioNTech.
Together, those announcements risk up-ending EU vaccination programmes that depend on people getting two jabs weeks apart.
That would potentially trash European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen's pledge made just a week ago to inoculate 70 percent of adults in the EU by the end of August.
- Watching vaccine exports -
The European Union has currently authorised two vaccines for jabs: the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna ones.
By the end of this week it is poised to add the AstraZeneca vaccine, on the understanding that it would be already on hand and available for immediate roll-out.
Those vaccines, along with others also being vetted for marketing authorisation, were secured by the European Commission under advance purchase agreements on behalf of the EU and its 450 million residents.
Von der Leyen early Monday spoke with AstraZeneca's French CEO Pascal Soriot, and representatives EU member states held two meetings with the company to press for answers and a rapid solution meeting the contract terms.
"The answers of the company have not been satisfactory so far," Kyriakides said.
In a sign of distrust of the company she announced a move to have pharmaceutical companies notify EU authorities of vaccine exports out of the bloc, except for humanitarian deliveries.
"The Commission has today proposed to the 27 member states in the steering board that an export transparency mechanism will be put in place as soon as possible," she said.
She added: "The European Union has pre-financed the development of the vaccine and its production and wants to see the return. The European Union wants to know exactly which doses have been produced where by AstraZeneca so far, and if or to whom they have been delivered."
The only public statement by AstraZeneca on Monday was that Soriot was "pleased" to speak with von der Leyen and it "is doing everything it can to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible".
- Travel restrictions -
In an effort to create enough time for vaccinations to protect the most vulnerable, the EU and various member states have increasingly restricted travel into the bloc and, for non-essential trips, within it.
On Monday, the European Commission urged further tightening of those rules, calling on member states to impose pre-trip PCR tests for all travellers allowed into the European Union and quarantine on arrival if they came from zones where more-contagious virus variants were spreading.
Vaccination and the immune system
It also recommended a heightened testing and quarantine regime, where possible, for essential travellers between -- or even within -- EU countries with high-risk areas classed as "deep red" by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The EU Commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders, said the new variants with high infectivity -- coming from former EU member Britain as well as South Africa and Brazil -- meant "there is an urgent need to reduce the risk of travel-related infections to lessen the burden on overstretched healthcare systems".
By Marc Burleigh