Irish health expert 'not surprised' by AstraZeneca vaccine delay
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Irish health expert 'not surprised' by AstraZeneca vaccine delay

AN IRISH immunology expert says he's not surprised by the production problems of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.

Trinity College Dublin Professor Kingston Mills warned that implementing a vaccine programme of this size was "tricky" and that "teething problems" in scaling up production should be expected.

His comments were made in the wake of the announcement by AstraZeneca confirming that supplies of its Covid-19 vaccine to Europe will be "lower than originally anticipated".

In response, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reminded AstraZeneca of its contractual obligations to deliver a fixed amount of Covid-19 vaccines to the EU.

President Ursula von der Leyen spoke to the CEO of the pharmaceutical firm, Pascal Soriot, directly over the phone, where she "made it clear that she expects AstraZeneca to deliver on the contractual arrangement foreseen in the Advance Purchase Agreement".

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A commission spokesperson said: "She reminded Mr Soriot that the EU has invested significant amounts in the company upfront precisely to ensure production is ramped up even before the conditional market authorisation is delivered by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

"Of course, production issues can appear with a complex vaccine but we expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly."

A spokesman for AstraZeneca assured president von der Leyen that every effort was being made to ramp up the delivery of the vaccine supplies to Europe.

A nine-figure sum was agreed upon between the EU and the pharma giant, providing the latter could provide Brussels with reserve production capacity and advance production.

Commenting on the expected delay, Dublin Rathdown TD Neale Richmond said: "There is obviously very serious concerns and questions need to be asked: were the company absolutely truthful with the European Commission and are they meeting their contractual obligations?"

Also wading into the controversy, Professor Kingston Mills said it was understandable that the firm had "trouble" scaling up production.

"This is a new vaccine, a new process. No vaccine has ever been made using what's called a live vector system before. So they're inevitably going to be teething troubles with large scale production," he said.

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"They have done this on a small scale before when testing the vaccine, but they would've never done it on a mega scale that's required for hundreds of millions of doses. So it's not surprising that they may have run into trouble in terms of getting enough virus.

"You have to grow that virus in tissue culture, which can be tricky."

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that must be cultivated in bioreactors - an elaborate process that involves much environmental fine-tuning and is therefore prone to a variety of complications.

Following the disappointing news, Taoiseach Micheál Martin acknowledged that it would "disrupt our plan", while Health Minister Stephen Donnelly hit a bleaker note, describing it as "a real setback."