The European Commission has approved the AztraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine for use, the final step to allowing Europe to use it across the continent.

"I expect the company to deliver the 400 million doses as agreed," Commission President Ursula von der Leyen,  wrote on Twitter.

The approval has been welcomed by the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, who said "Ireland now has access to three vaccines approved by the European Commission which will allow us to accelerate the roll-out of our vaccine programme in the coming weeks.

"The first delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Ireland is expected in early February and can be part of the vaccine programme shortly afterwards," he said.

Ireland should receive a total of 1.1 million doses of the three vaccines - Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca - by the end of March, Mr Donnelly added.

Earlier, the European Medicines Agency issued its recommendation for approval of the vaccine for people over the age of 18.

It is the third vaccine to be cleared for use in the European Union.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is supplied at a very low cost, is easily transportable and can be stored at fridge temperature. It can be administered by GPs, pharmacists and dentists.

It is the cornerstone of the Irish Government's vaccination rollout plans for the over 70s.

The EMA did not agree with Germany's refusal to approve the vaccine for older groups due to a lack of trial data related to that age cohort.

The EMA noted that while there are not yet enough results in people over the age of 55 to give a specific figure for how well the vaccine will work for them; protection is expected given that an immune response is seen in older people.

It added that there is reliable information about its safety for this group and based on experience with other vaccines its experts consider the vaccine can be used in older adults.

The EMA said that its experts had conducted a thorough assessment and rigorous evaluation of the efficacy and safety of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine.

24,000 people participated in four clinical trials for Astra Zeneca. 

Two of the trials took place in the UK, one in South Africa and one in Brazil.

However the European Medicines Agency said there were not enough cases of Covid-19 in two these trials to measure the preventative effect of the vaccine. 

It concentrated on the information garnered from the two remaining clinical trials, one of which was conducted in the UK and the other in Brazil.

Between both trials a total of just over 5,200 people were given two doses of the vaccine while another 5,200 received a placebo or dummy vaccine. 

The results showed that 64 out of the 5,200 who received the true vaccine went on to develop symptomatic Covid-19 infections, compared with 154 from the control group. 

The implication drawn was that the vaccine provided 60% protection from infection, or had 60% efficacy.

The EMA said the EU and EEA had expanded its arsenal of vaccines

"With this third positive opinion, we have further expanded the arsenal of vaccines available to EU and EEA member states to combat the pandemic and protect their citizens," said Emer Cooke, Executive Director of EMA.

Europe needs more shots to speed up its inoculation programme, as suppliers such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer face difficulties in delivering the quantities promised for the early months of the year.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on Twitter: "This is good news. It means we now have another vaccine in the arsenal.

"AstraZeneca has met the EMA's strict criteria. And we will also begin vaccinating the over 85s in the next few weeks."

The AstraZeneca vaccine is administered via two injections into the arm, the second between 4 and 12 weeks after the first.

The HSE had earlier said it would listen to the decision from the EMA with regard to the vaccine's use in people over 65.

The EU contract with AstraZeneca is an advance purchase agreement for the supply of at least 300 million doses, with doses delivered in stages.

The process has been overshadowed by the very public dispute between the company and the EU.

Europe was due to receive 81 million doses before the end of March pending authorisation.

However, the company told the European Commission last Friday they were only able to deliver one quarter of that amount.

There are reports that the company will significantly increase its supplies to member states.

Earlier, the European Commission published a redacted version of its contract with drugs giant AstraZeneca, hoping to prove the company had breached a commitment on coronavirus vaccine deliveries.

Releasing the document, EU spokesman Eric Mamer said it would show that the contract covers AstraZeneca plants in the UK and that "these plants will contribute to the effort ... to deliver doses to the European Union".

Britain, meanwhile, had signed its contract three months earlier than Brussels had and the firm used the time to resolve production problems and launch deliveries.

But the Europe Commission reacted angrily, insisting that its contract does not stipulate that Britain production be reserved for UK deliveries and that it was for the firm to meet its commitments.

Mr Mamer said that the previously confidential contract would prove that AstraZeneca had signed up for a clear delivery schedule and not simply to make its "best efforts" to serve the EU contract. 

He said: "So in our mind, there is absolutely no doubt that we have a firm commitment with the company and as with all other companies to deliver doses according to specific schedules."

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the contract contains binding orders.

An EU official said that meant the EU would receive 31 million doses in the period, or 60% less than initially agreed, piling pressure on the 27-country bloc, which has lagged vaccination campaigns in Israel, Britain and the US.

"There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear," Ms von der Leyen told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding it contained clear delivery amounts for December and the first three quarters of 2021.

"AstraZeneca has also explicitly assured us in this contract that no other obligations would prevent the contract from being fulfilled," she added.

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Ms von der Leyen's comments contradict statements by AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot, who told newspapers on Tuesday the EU contract was based on a "best-effort" clause and did not commit the company to a specific timetable for deliveries.

Mr Soriot has also said the EU was late to strike a supply contract so the company did not have enough time to iron out production problems at a vaccine factory run by a partner in Belgium.

Ms von der Leyen said the "best-effort" cause was only valid as long as it was not clear whether AstraZeneca could develop a vaccine. She also said there was no "order sequencing" stipulation and it mentioned four production sites, two of which are in Britain.

The European Commission said it will set out plans to restrict exports of vaccines from the EU if those exports undermine supplies that are contractually due to member states.

Additional reporting George Lee, Tony Connelly