Australia said it had asked for a review after its shipment of a quarter of a million AstraZeneca vaccines was blocked from leaving the European Union in the bloc’s first use of an export control system designed to ensure 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.
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.
“Australia has raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels, and in particular we have asked the European Commission to review this decision,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne on Friday.
Hunt said Australia had already received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca shot, which would last until it was able to produce more of the vaccine locally.
The Financial Times first reported that Italy had pushed for the ban on Thursday. The government of Mario Draghi, which came into power last month, has been taking a tougher line in dealing with vaccine shortages.
While seeking the European Commission’s intervention, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he could understand the reasons for Italy’s objection.
“In Italy people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU established 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 region 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.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in January said the EU export vetting scheme was part of a “very worrying trend” that could jeopardise global supply chains for vaccines. The EU is one of the world’s biggest vaccine producers.
The scheme started on January 30 and will remain in place 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, which closed its borders a year ago and has a negligible number of COVID-19 cases, 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 as many as 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 region’s warmer months.