By Jenny Strasburg 

LONDON -- AstraZeneca PLC told European Union officials that fewer doses of its Covid-19 vaccine will be ready for the bloc's planned rollout in early February, blaming an unspecified manufacturing issue.

The shortfall comes as European leaders face heightened scrutiny over what critics say has been a slower rollout of several Western-developed vaccines than in the U.S. and U.K. It also comes after European officials clashed this week with Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE over the companies' decision to cut their own planned deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to the bloc.

The dual shortfalls put the Continent's plans to accelerate its vaccine drive at risk. EU nations have placed big orders for the AstraZeneca shot, partly because it doesn't require the cold storage needed for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Officials have been banking on the arrival of their AstraZeneca orders next month to speed up bloc-wide vaccinations.

The AstraZeneca disclosure also threatens a fresh reputational hit to the British pharmaceutical giant, which partnered with the University of Oxford in developing the vaccine. AstraZeneca is responsible for manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine, as well as regulatory approvals.

The company has previously faced criticism over how it initially communicated results of the vaccine's late-stage human trials.

Austria's health-care minister Rudolf Anschober said that AstraZeneca's move was unacceptable. The company's commitments to delivery "must be honored," Mr. Anschober said Friday. A spokesman for the European Commission said that AstraZeneca confirmed a "change of its delivery schedule" and that the commission was working to find out more details.

AstraZeneca said it would still be able to start delivering vaccines upon anticipated approval of the shot in Europe, a spokesman said Friday evening. The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to review the AstraZeneca vaccine next week. If approved, the vaccine could start rolling out in early February.

An AstraZeneca spokesman said Friday, however, that "initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated." He declined to specify the size of the shortfall or the reason, except to say it was because of "reduced yields" at a manufacturing site in the company's European supply chain.

He said AstraZeneca still expects to ship tens of millions of doses to the EU in February and March as it ramps up production volumes.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine hasn't been approved yet in the U.S. It was first administered in the U.K. starting in early January and has since been authorized in a handful of other countries, including India.

A number of top drug regulators are set to issue recommendations on the AstraZeneca vaccine around the same time. The EU's regulator will reach a judgment on Jan. 29. Switzerland is set to issue its own decision on the vaccine that same week. The World Health Organization said Friday it would announce its own judgment on whether to authorize the vaccine within the next three weeks.

Last week, Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the country's national health department would make a decision on the AstraZeneca vaccine in the near future.

Write to Jenny Strasburg at jenny.strasburg@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 22, 2021 15:05 ET (20:05 GMT)

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