AstraZeneca PLC Chief Executive Pascal Soriotpromised to churn out more Covid-19 vaccines, at a lower price, than any of his big pharma competitors.
Now, a production problem at a single factory in Belgium has delayed tens of millions of doses destined for Europe, endangering the continent’s already-slow inoculation drive and representing the greatest threat so far to Dr. Soriot’s extraordinary pledge last year to vaccinate the world—and do so for no profit. After disclosing the European problem, the drugmaker now says it has been troubleshooting similar production issues in recent weeks as far away as the U.S. and Australia.
The setbacks, which come on the eve of a decision from regulators whether to recommend the shot for use in Europe, suggest AstraZeneca is falling behind in the vaccine arms race. The company has relatively little experience in vaccines, a tricky, typically low-margin niche in the global pharmaceuticals industry. The manufacturing process the company uses, piggybacking on a chimpanzee cold virus, can be more difficult to quickly scale up than the one employed by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., both of which use a new genetic technology.
The company has also proved maladroit politically. After learning of the glitches early this month, AstraZeneca deployed engineers to troubleshoot but didn’t warn European officials, hoping the company could fix the problems to minimize the dent in production, according to a person familiar with the matter. Lower output of raw vaccine substance had first been spotted in December, but worsened in January, with the clock ticking.
When production didn’t improve, AstraZeneca’s bad news hit like a bombshell. Now it is grappling with a political backlash just when the pandemic seems to be entering a more dangerous phase.