The commission’s spokesperson confirmed that it started legal proceedings against AstraZeneca on 23 April, in a move that has been backed by all 27 EU states.
Stefan De Keersmaecker said the legal action was launched last Friday “on the basis of breaches of the advance purchase agreement”.
He said “some terms of the contract have not been respected” and the company “has not been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure a timely delivery of doses”.
Under its contract with the European Commission, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm committed to making “best reasonable efforts to supply 180 million doses of the COVID-19 to the EU in the second quarter of this year.
But in a statement last month AstraZeneca said it would aim to deliver only one-third of that by the end of June and EU officials have repeatedly accused the drugmaker of under-delivering, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatening to halt vaccine exports earlier this year.
An EU spokesman told a news conference on Monday: “Some terms of the contract have not been respected and the company has not been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure timely delivery of doses.”
On 22 April, Ireland’s health minister announced that it had joined the commission’s plans to launch legal action.
Stephen Donnelly said: “A legal case has been initiated by the commission and earlier this week I have joined Ireland as one of the parties to that case, specifically around AstraZeneca’s complete failure to meet its deliver and contractual agreements.”
In response to the lawsuit, AstraZeneca said it “regrets” the commission’s decision to take legal action and is looking “forward to working constructively with the EU Commission to vaccinate as many people as possible”.
It said: “AstraZeneca has fully complied with the Advance Purchase Agreement with the European Commission and will strongly defend itself in court.
“We believe any litigation is without merit and we welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible.”
It added that deliveries were improving “following an unprecedented year of scientific discovery, very complex negotiations and manufacturing challenges”.
Under the contract, the case will need to be resolved by Belgian courts.
EU officials have confirmed that the purpose of the litigation was to ensure more supplies than what AstraZeneca has said it aims to deliver.
Germany, France and Hungary were among EU states initially reluctant to pursue legal action, mostly because it might not speed up vaccine deliveries, diplomats have said.
AstraZeneca has said it is in the process of delivering nearly 50 million doses by the end of this month – in line with its revised target of 100 million jabs by the end of the quarter.
The EU wants it to deliver as many of the initial 300 million doses as possible.
In March, AstraZeneca hit back at claims that it stockpiled 29 million doses of the vaccine at a factory near Rome.
The company clarified that 13 million of the jabs are destined to go to countries in the COVAX programme after passing quality control.
The World Health Organisation-backed initiative supplies the AstraZeneca vaccine to many developing nations at a cost price.