Some 29 million doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines were found on Wednesday in an inspection at a plant in Italy.
The batch was destined for the EU and for donations to poorer countries via the COVAX scheme co-led by the World Health Organization.
At the request of the European Commission, Italian security forces inspected a Catalent factory in Anagni, near Rome, at the weekend and found the store of vaccine doses, according to Italian newspaper La Stampa. An Italian official later confirmed the report of the inspection and said the doses were to be sent to Belgium.
A flurry of reactions to the report reflected the level of mistrust in the EU towards the Anglo-Swedish firm, which slashed its supply target to the EU by the end of June to 100 million from 300 million envisaged in its contract with the 27-nation bloc. The 29 million doses found would be enough to vaccinate 14.5 million people.
“A stock of almost 30 million doses has been identified near Rome during an inspection we put in place. It has now been seized,” French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told reporters after a cabinet meeting. “The EU won’t be the fall guy of vaccinations.”
EU lawmaker Peter Liese, from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the report left him speechless, and he urged AstraZeneca to clarify the situation.
Later on Wednesday, AstraZeneca said that most of the doses in the Catalent plant were for the EU, and the rest were for poorer countries supplied by the COVAX scheme co-led by the World Health Organization.
The remaining 16 million will be shipped to Europe this month and in April, it said.
Mario Gargiulo, Regional Biologics President for Europe at Catalent, told Reuters that having 29 million doses in the Anagni factory was in line with normal procedure and that the company often had more there.
The European Commission declined to comment on the doses at the Anagni factory.
Earlier on Wednesday, UNICEF said on behalf of the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility that the projected deliveries of vaccines to all countries, including Vietnam, had to be delayed due to production delays.