Court ruling in AstraZeneca-Commission case lets both sides claim a win

The Commission won’t get its doses on time — but it gets to say it was right.

Court ruling in AstraZeneca-Commission case lets both sides claim a win

A Belgian court has pulled off what no one thought was possible: Making both the European Commission and AstraZeneca happy. 

In an interim decision, the Belgian court of first instance in Brussels ordered the drugmaker on Friday to deliver 50 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine between now and late September, or pay a €10 fine per delayed dose.  

With the 30 million doses the drugmaker delivered at the end of March, the ruling means the company has to hand over a total of 80 million doses by September 27, or face a fine of up to €500 million.

At face value, this decision sounds like a win for the Commission, but this was a far cry from what the EU wanted.

In court hearings last month, the EU’s lawyers asked a judge to order the company to deliver 120 million doses by the end of June and the entire tranche of 300 million doses ordered by the end of September — or face billions in fines.

Considering the company has already delivered 70 million doses and plans to deliver another 10 million within the coming weeks, it’s unlikely to face any penalty or even struggle to meet the court’s demands, an AstraZeneca representative close to the case asserted.

“The court case would absolutely have no impact and no change in terms of how fast we will get the doses of vaccine into the arms of the EU citizens,” the representative added.

But this case was never really about the doses. The Commission’s case was about proving AstraZeneca was wrong. Here, the EU succeeded. 

“The judgment has recognized that AstraZeneca has breached, perhaps intentionally, at least seriously, the contract,” a lawyer representing the Commission said. “Therefore on the principles and the way that the contract must be performed in the future, the judgment is entirely satisfying.”

AstraZeneca’s delivery delays impeded the bloc’s fight against the virus. When the viral vector vaccine was approved in the EU at the end of January, the doses were crucial to decreasing coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations during the grip of the third wave. One Commission official went so far as to imply that people likely died because of the delays.

The court acknowledged how badly the bloc needed the doses then. “The fact of being able to have vaccines at the end of the period planned was for the European Union of particular importance in the context of the current health crisis, which AstraZeneca could not ignore in its capacity as a pharmaceutical company,” the court wrote. 

But the massive delivery shortages also humiliated Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who spearheaded the collective effort to purchase vaccines as a bloc and faced fierce backlash when the U.S. and U.K. raced ahead with vaccinations early in the year. 

Friday’s ruling was vindication for von der Leyen.

“This decision confirms the position of the Commission: AstraZeneca did not live up to the commitments it made in the contract. It is good to see that an independent judge confirms this,” von der Leyen wrote in a statement. “This shows that our European vaccination campaign not only delivers for our citizens day by day. It also demonstrates that it was founded on a sound legal basis.”

Battle vaccine

Under the decision, the court ordered the drugmaker to deliver 15 million doses by July 26, 20 million doses by August 23 and a final 15 million doses by September 27. In terms of material damages, this came as a relief to the drugmaker: It won’t have to cough up millions more doses to the bloc or pay the potentially billions of euros in fines that the Commission requested. 

When pressed by reporters whether the exercise was a waste of time, however, a Commission lawyer insisted that the case prompted AstraZeneca to speed up the delivery of doses. 

“AstraZeneca has indeed anticipated that [it] would be condemned in the judgment, and has already delivered approximately 40 million doses in the period between end [of] March and now approximately,” the lawyer said. 

The lawyer agreed the court’s order was “limited” to 50 million doses, but pointed to the broader success: The court ruled that AstraZeneca committed a “serious breach” of its contract with the EU, pointing out that it didn’t use a site in the U.K. explicitly mentioned in the agreement (Oxford Biomedica) to meet its obligations to the bloc. Rather, it chose to “monopolize” the site for “the benefit of third parties [the U.K.].”

“It seems [AstraZeneca] freely violated its contractual guarantee,” the judge wrote, citing a contract provision clearly stating that AstraZeneca didn’t have any other competing contracts to block its obligations to the EU.

Still, the judge refused the Commission’s request to create a binding delivery schedule for the rest of the 220 million doses, calling it “premature” because it’s too soon to say whether the company will fall short on its full schedule of obligations.

“Even if AstraZeneca appears to have failed in its contractual obligations in the past, it has not been sufficiently established that following our decision, it will persist in ignoring them and [/] or refuse to take measures to remedy them in the future,” the judgment said. “We cannot … rule on … possible future contractual breaches of which nothing clearly indicates that they will be committed.”

As Commission spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker saw it, “the court really laid the tracks for future deliveries by the company” by telling AstraZeneca it breached its contract with the EU and should have used the Oxford Biomedica site in the U.K.

“The company can no longer hide behind the fact that the U.K. is not part of the EU,” he said. “The court attaches importance to principles that now the company has to respect.”

Still, AstraZeneca gave no indication that the British plant would suddenly make millions of doses for the EU. When asked by reporters if the court’s decision could affect British supply of Oxford/AstraZeneca doses, the firm’s representative pointed out that the court didn’t actually order the company to use its British plant.

“So I don’t believe that we can infer … that there would be an obligation and breach of the contract if we were not to use it,” the representative said.

This is not the last word by any stretch.

The Commission and AstraZeneca will face each other in court again on September 24 and September 29 in a longer case “on the merits” of the dispute. The court will assess how AstraZeneca is keeping up with its delivery schedule and whether further action is needed — a decision that could produce a more clear-cut winner. 

The one clear loser Friday was AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot, who had insisted earlier this year in La Repubblica that the company’s delivery schedule was a best estimate rather than hard commitment. The company had made its “best reasonable efforts” to do so, he argued.

Not so, said the court. 

“A marginal examination of this file reveals that in doing so, AstraZeneca has not made its Best Reasonable Efforts to manufacture and deliver part of the 300 million doses promised in the expected deadlines,” the court said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email for a complimentary trial. 

Source : Politico EU More   

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UK union left-wingers wrangle over ballot deal

Race to elect leader of powerful union gets complicated.

UK union left-wingers wrangle over ballot deal

LONDON — The race to elect a new leader of the U.K.’s powerful Unite union has taken a few twists and turns. Perhaps the strangest was when one of the candidates, Howard Beckett, proposed drawing names out of a hat to decide who should fight for the top post. There was stunned silence at that one.

It was the most surreal moment during days of horse-trading in the race to find a new general secretary of Unite. The union is the biggest financial backer to the opposition Labour Party, wielding huge influence over the direction of the movement under its leader Keir Starmer. The left is skeptical of Starmer, to put it mildly.

Beckett, alongside Steve Turner and Sharon Graham, fellow left-wingers who won the right to be on the ballot, ended up locked in talks about who should stand down to avoid splitting the vote and handing the job to Gerard Coyne, the pro-Starmer candidate.

For days it looked as though there would be no deal between the three professional union negotiators. But on Friday morning white smoke emerged from talks between Beckett and Turner.

“Howard Beckett has decided he will support Steve Turner as Unite’s next general secretary,” a joint statement from the two said. “Both recognise the vision and strengths of their respective campaigns and Steve Turner recognizes the key manifesto commitments and energy generated by Howard’s campaign.”

Taking on some of Beckett’s pledges was a crucial element in brokering the deal, a Unite official told POLITICO. One of the most controversial, to set up a trade union television channel, remains on the table.

It was made clear to Beckett that he had the fewest branch nominations in the race to make the ballot and that those who did support him might not translate into enough votes to beat Coyne in the final contest, because some of the branches have low membership numbers.

But it was agreed that Beckett could not quit the race without getting something in return. He has a big social media following of loyal supporters who could be easily triggered, including the hardcore Skwawkbox blog that was set up to fight for the Labour far left. Turner and current left-wing Unite boss Len McCluskey argued Beckett’s online supporters would not translate into votes, and eventually managed to buy Beckett off.

“He wanted to save quite a bit of his program and Steve hasn’t really got a problem with that,” the official said. The joint statement said the pair will “work to implement a blended manifesto, taking the best ideas from both candidates, when Steve Turner becomes general secretary.”

Graham, meanwhile, had ditched the talks while the other two fought it out between themselves. A proposal was made to absorb some of her ideas into the Turner campaign too, but she refused to quit and will still stand.

“The announcement of the Turner/Beckett ticket, along with the Gerard Coyne candidacy, now completes the Westminster brigade,” Graham said in a statement Friday morning. “I am the workplace candidate and will be standing to ensure the voice of Unite members is heard.”

Her allies were briefing during the negotiations that it was a disappointment, despite the left talking the talk about equalities and diversity, that two men were pushing for the only woman in the contest to stand down.

As for Coyne, he argued Beckett standing down made no difference, painting his two remaining opponents as tools of the hard left. “We now have a Communist Party candidate, a Socialist Worker Party candidate and myself in the Unite election,” he said in a statement. “I’m happy to be the mainstream candidate for the members.”

The left now has a clearer path to beat Coyne. But there are still fears about whether the mainstream candidate can be beaten. Having two left-wingers on the ballot will still split the vote, and every shred of support matters after Coyne came close to beating McCluskey in 2017.

Both sides are hoping for big turnouts of their factions when the contest comes to a close in August.

Source : Politico EU More   

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