BRUSSELS has ordered a raid on AstraZeneca's vaccine factory in Belgium to check it isn't lying about delays to production as eurocrats' feud with the drugs giant grows ever more bitter.
The EU Commission sent inspectors from the Belgian medicines agency into the plant on Tuesday afternoon amid an increasingly fractious row over Europe's stuttering jabs rollout.
😷 Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates
Its extraordinary move was confirmed in a statement by the office of Belgium's health minister Frank Vandenbroucke, which said it was "to make sure that the delivery delay is indeed due to a production problem".
Belgian experts were joined by colleagues from the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain on the raid and will now draw up a report which is set to be released within "a few days".
The shock development comes after a furious German MEP warned that Britain and the EU risk being plunged into a "trade war" by the increasingly bitter feud over vaccine supplies.
Pieter Liese lashed out at AstraZeneca for treating Europeans like "second class citizens" after Brussels demanded the firm start diverting lifesaving jabs from British factories to the continent.
The veteran euro MP, who belongs to Angela Merkel's CDU party, even called on EU countries to block deliveries of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine to the UK as payback.
He fumed: “People in the UK are vaccinated with a very good vaccine produced in Europe, supported by European money.
“If there is anyone thinking that European citizens would accept that we give this high quality vaccine to the UK and would accept to be treated as second class by a UK-based company.
“I think the only consequence can be to immediately stop the export of BioNTech and then we are in the middle of a trade war. So the company and the UK better think twice if they really want to stop al the export.”
He added: "If it's UK first and if it's us first, we need to tell other companies in the world – if you treat Europeans as second class, you will suffer for this."
Germany's government is under huge pressure over the bloc's stuttering jabs rollout, with health minister Jens Spahn admitting the country faces at least 10 weeks of vaccine shortages.
Yesterday the EU's health chief pressured AstraZeneca to drop its "first come, first served" approach insisting: "That may work at the neighbourhood butchers, but not in contracts."
But the PM hit back at the demand, which may risk putting a squeeze on NHS supplies and stoke a major row with No 10.
Brussels' health chief Stella Kyriakides told AZ it must begin sending jabs from its two plants in Oxfordshire and Staffordshire to the continent or risk financial and legal penalties.
In an extraordinary outburst, she accused the Anglo-Swedish firm of breaching its contract with the bloc by trying to keep the UK's supply chain separate to that of the rest of Europe.
But Boris hit back at the shameless attempted vaccine grab yesterday, insisting: "We're very confident in our supplies, we're very confident in our contracts, and we're going ahead on that basis.
"I am pleased at the moment we have the fastest rollout of vaccines in Europe and by some way."
AstraZeneca has angered EU officials who say the pharmaceutical giant has only pledged to deliver a quarter of the 100 million doses it had promised for the first three months of 2021.
Brussels insists AstraZeneca must meet the supply shortfall from UK vaccine supplies, meaning the EU is demanding up to 75 million jabs from British factories.
During crisis talks last night Ms Kyriakides pushed the firm to fill the continent's shortfall of up to 49 million doses by dipping into British production lines.
AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said that supply chain "teething issues" were fixed in the UK ahead of the EU as Britain signed a contracted three months earlier than the bloc.
But Ms Kyriakides said: "We reject the logic of first come first served. That may work at the neighbourhood butchers but not in contracts."
Following the showdown, Ms Kyriakides claimed there was a "lack of clarity" over AstraZeneca's delivery schedule and demanded a "clear plan".
Ms Kyriakides said: "The EU remains united and firm.
"Contractual obligations must be met, vaccines must be delivered to EU citizens."
Following the talks with EU officials, an AstraZeneca spokesman emphasised it was delivering the vaccine to millions of Europeans for no profit.
The spokesman told MailOnline: "We had a constructive and open conversation about the complexities of scaling up production of our vaccine, and the challenges we have encountered.
"We have committed to even closer co-ordination, to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring our vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic."
EU officials havevowed to trawl through export data to root out any shipments of vaccines the company may have sent to the UK as their row with it grows increasingly bitter.
Meanwhile, industry insiders believe Britain had more than enough vaccines for this year and may be able to donate spare supplies to other countries, it's reported.
The UK has ordered 367 million doses, enough for 5.5 per person, with a source telling The Times: "There is plenty of vaccine. It exceeds what the government wants to do."
At a Brussels meeting tonight France and Poland added their voice to calls for EU-wide powers to ban exports of vaccines.
Germany has already come out in favour of much tighter controls on shipments of jabs to Britain and other nations.
Berlin's health minister Jens Spahn today admitted his country is facing a shortage of vaccines for at least the next 10 weeks.
But fellow Member States are opposed to the plan, and one EU diplomat said it "won't solve the problem."
Britain has forged ahead with its jabs rollout after moving swiftly and tying up a contract with AstraZeneca for the supply of its jabs a whole three months earlier than Brussels.
You could not make it up! It's pathetic. They screwed up and are now trying to blame everyone else.
But that progress could now be under threat with eurocrats piling pressure on company bosses to "reject the logic of first come first served" and start diverting doses their way.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told The Sun: "You could not make it up! It's pathetic. They screwed up and are now trying to blame everyone else.
"This is a really big moment as many will finally see just how arrogant and intolerant so many of the EU institutions really are.
"They just don't get it. They have made a complete mess of vaccinations and having made that mess they are now trying to shift blame on to AZ .
"The blame is wholly theirs.
"This is an astonishing demonstration of mean spiritedness and arrogance, who makes it very clear to those who did not understand before, why we were right to leave the EU."
Tory MP Michael Fabricant said: "This spat between the EU and AstraZeneca is an undignified attempt by the Brussels bureaucracy to blame anyone but themselves for their shameful performance so far in vaccinating the Europe population.
"This is such an example of highly paid European Commissioners trying to cover their derrieres.
Ms Kyriakides said the EU's contract with the firm, for up to 400 million doses, names factories in the UK and not using them to supply the bloc is "against the letter and the spirit of our agreement".
She fumed: "In our contract it is not specified that the UK has priority because it signed earlier. There is no such clause."
Asked directly if the EU expects AstraZeneca to shift doses from Britain, she replied: "The UK factories have to deliver."
An EU official added: “If UK plants are working better are we expecting UK plants to deliver doses to the EU? Yes we do.”
The PM added the AstraZeneca vaccine "continues to be made in ever-growing quantities in the UK" and "that will accelerate" in future.
As the row escalated AstraZeneca immediately hit back, insisting the Commission had been heavily involved in drawing up its plans for deliveries to Europe.
A spokesman said: "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."
A Government spokesman said they were in contact with the drugs giant and "we remain confident that supply of vaccine to the UK will not be disrupted".
They added: "We have deals in place with seven vaccine developers that will ensure our supply continues to grow, as we rapidly expand the rollout in the weeks ahead.
“This pandemic is a global challenge and international collaboration on vaccine development and production continues to be an integral part of our response.”
British officials have been in regular contact with eurocrats about the bloc's latest demands and are closely monitoring the situation.
Ms Kyriakides said AstraZeneca's current offer would see it supply just a quarter of the jabs it promised to Brussels in the first quarter of this year.
EU officials have warned the company it could face financial penalties or legal action, including the possible termination of its contract for non-compliance.
One said: "We are looking at means to recuperate the money."
They are also pushing for the publication of the contract, arguing an interview with its CEO in which he said the drugs giant only has to make "best efforts" to supply the bloc breaches a confidentiality agreement.
An angry Ms Kryiakidies insisted AstraZeneca is obliged stick to a delivery schedule, branding its arguments "neither correct nor acceptable".
Eurocrats have also raised suspicions the firm may have shipped some doses made in Europe and intended for their own stockpile to Britain.
A second official said: “We are looking at the customs data. The customs data does not lie.
“I can see that vaccines were shipped to many country from Europe. You can be assured we will find this information.”
The Commission has faced a barrage of criticism over the bloc's snail-paced delivery of its vaccine programme, with critics openly questioning why the UK has been so much more successful.
Britain has jabbed 7.3 million people so far, dishing out an impressive 10.3 doses per 100 people.
In contrast the whole EU, which has a population seven times larger, has only vaccinated 9.7 million at a rate of just 2.19.
Source: Read Full Article