Italy, EU block AstraZeneca vaccine shipment to Australia

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The move affecting 250,000 doses reflects frustration within the bloc over the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries.

A shipment of a quarter-million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc to make sure big pharma companies would respect their contracts.

Italy’s order blocking the dispatch of 250,000 doses was accepted by the European Commission, which has fiercely criticised the Anglo-Swedish company this year for supplying just a fraction of the vaccine doses it had promised to deliver to the bloc.

The move, affecting only a small number of vaccines, underscores a growing frustration within the 27-nation bloc about the slow rollout of its vaccine drive and the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries, especially by AstraZeneca.

The Financial Times on Thursday first reported on the ban that came at the behest of Italy, which has been taking a tough line in dealing with vaccine shortages since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power last month.

Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for COVID-19 vaccines.

Under the commission’s “transparency and authorisation mechanism” EU member states vet planned exports of authorised COVID-19 vaccines that leave the bloc.

The EU has been specifically angry with AstraZeneca because it is delivering far fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised. Of the initial 80 million doses the EU ordered for the first quarter, the company will be struggling to deliver just half that quantity.

‘Worrying trend’

The World Health Organization (WHO) in January said the EU export vetting scheme is part of a “very worrying trend” that could jeopardise global supply chains for vaccines. The EU is one of the world’s vaccine-producing powerhouses.

The scheme started on January 30 and will run until at least the end of March.

The EU has vaccinated only 8 percent of its population compared with more than 30 percent, for example, in the United Kingdom. Australia is in the very early stages of its vaccination drive.

With its 450 million people, the EU has signed deals for six different vaccines. In total, it has ordered up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and sealed agreements with other companies for more than two billion shots.

It has said that despite the current difficulties, it is still convinced it can vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population by the end of the warmer months.

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