India Shipment of Astra Vaccine Said to Be Behind U.K. Delay

Adar Poonawalla said the delay in vaccine shipments had “nothing to do” with the Serum Institute.

India Shipment of Astra Vaccine Said to Be Behind U.K. Delay
Vials of the AstraZeneca and University of Oxford Covid-19 vaccine, in Oldham, U.K. (Photographer: Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg)

A delayed shipment of AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 vaccine from India and a batch requiring re-testing are behind a cut in the U.K.’s supply starting this month, the first major interruption in Britain’s vaccine rollout.

Doses made by one of Astra’s manufacturing partners, the Serum Institute of India Ltd., have been stalled, and another 1.7 million shots have been kept back in the last week for further checks on their stability, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament in a statement Thursday. The Serum delays account for four million doses, according to the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care.

“Events like this are to be expected in a manufacturing endeavor of this complexity and this shows the rigor of our safety checks,” said Hancock, without specifying where the batch under review was manufactured.

The U.K. is facing a “significant” four-week cut to the supply of Covid-19 vaccines from late March, according to a letter sent to local health-service groups Wednesday, forcing medics to stop taking bookings from new patients for next month. Hancock later downplayed the supply delays, saying at a news conference that the NHS letter was routine and vaccine shipments have always been “lumpy.”

Benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine continue to outweigh the risks, according to the U.K.’s drugs regulator, which issued renewed guidance after concerns emerged over a growing number of blood clots being reported post-vaccination. The European Union’s drugs regulator also cleared the shot Thursday, though the agency is recommending that a warning is added to the product to make sure the public is better informed.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to take up the shot, saying in a news conference in London that he’ll get the Astra vaccine himself on Friday.

“The Oxford jab is safe and the Pfizer jab is safe,” he said. “The thing that isn’t safe is catching Covid.”

Renewed Recommendation

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued its recommendation after five cases -- all of them in men aged 19-59 -- developed an unusual combination of blood clotting in the brain with low levels of platelets.

While the European Union has struggled with its inoculation program, Britain wants to ensure vaccinations remain its stand-out success after a torrid year when it recorded the continent’s highest death toll from Covid-19. The shortages come after Britain announced a new milestone Wednesday -- more than 25 million people have now received a first shot of the vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE or by Astra and the University of Oxford. The number equates to about half the U.K.’s adult population.

The setback in India is related to that country’s government not allowing the export of the doses to the U.K., according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who didn’t want to be identified because the supply details are private. The Serum Institute faces pressure to prioritize India and other countries in dire need of vaccines, its chief executive officer said earlier this week.

The Serum Institute has already contributed to the U.K. supply this quarter and is expected to deliver 10 million of the U.K.’s 100 million doses overall, another person said.

At Thursday’s news conference Johnson attributed the delay in supplies from India to “technical reasons.”

“The Indian government hasn’t stopped any export” he said. “There is a delay.”

Second Doses

Adar Poonawalla, the Serum Institute’s chief executive, said countries were holding tightly to their supplies and restricting access to materials needed to make more. The company had been directed to prioritize India and other countries with a high burden of the disease, he said in an interview with Bloomberg that aired Wednesday.

The Serum Institute is responsible for providing more than half of the shots used so far in the WHO-backed Covax program that aims to provide equitable vaccine access across the world.

The supply crunch has prompted the U.K. government to shift focus and offer remaining doses to the people most at risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19. The government will also focus on providing second doses to the most-vulnerable people and first doses to those in priority groups who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

Astra declined to comment on the delay. The company said Wednesday that the “U.K. domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule.”

A spokesperson for the U.K.’s DHSC said the number of vaccinations carried out over time will vary due to supply, but the country remains on track to offer a first vaccine to over 50s by mid-April and all adults by the end of July.

Serum and the Indian government didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The news comes after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to withhold vaccine exports to the U.K. as the EU battles its own shortage challenges.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.