Italy and the European Union have blocked a shipment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine destined for Australia amid a stoush over contract commitments between the pharmaceutical company and the EU.
- The Italian government has stopped a shipment of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 doses from travelling to Australia
- The ban comes amid tension between the EU and AstraZeneca over commitments to supply the vaccine
- Australia has secured 53.8 million doses of the vaccine, 50 million of which will be made in Australia
It is understood AstraZeneca had asked the Italian government to export 250,000 doses to Australia from its Anagni plant near Rome.
An EU official confirmed to the ABC that Italy refused the export authorisation, and the decision was supported by the European Commission.
The ban is believed to be the first time Europe has stopped a vaccine shipment to a non-EU country after it tightened its rules on vaccine exports in January in an effort to secure its own supply.
Under the temporary measures any company based in the EU exporting vaccines will first have to submit their plans to national authorities.
Italy’s foreign ministry said the decision to deny the shipment was made because Australia was “not vulnerable” due to the low number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and the shortage of vaccines in Italy and the EU.
An EU spokesperson said the EU delegation to Australia was “liaising with Brussels on this matter and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage”.
AstraZeneca has been contacted for comment.
Government ‘disappointed and frustrated’
In a statement a spokesperson for the Health Minister Greg Hunt said the shipment that has already arrived in Australia would “take us through” to when it is made locally from the end of the month.
“[The Italy shipment] is one shipment from one country,” they said.
“Domestic production starts with 1 million per week of deliveries from late March and is on track.”
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News the government was seeking assurances from the EU that future shipments would not be blocked.
“We’re obviously disappointed and frustrated by this decision,” he said.
“That was about ensuring we built in contingencies for the likelihood that things would go wrong.
“The world is in unchartered territory at present, it’s unsurprising that some countries would tear up the rule book … that’s why we’ve taken these very cautious approaches.”
It comes amid tensions between Europe and AstraZeneca after the latter failed to meet delivery targets set out in its contract with the EU.
In January AstraZeneca cut its supplies to the EU in the first quarter to 40 million doses from 90 million foreseen in the contract, and later told EU states it would cut deliveries by another 50 per cent in the second quarter.
The company later said it was striving to supply missing doses for the second quarter from outside Europe.
The first 300,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine arrived by plane in Sydney on Sunday, with the rollout expected to start in Adelaide on Friday after being batch-tested by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Australia has secured 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, 3.8 million of which will be manufactured overseas.
The remaining 50 million doses will be made in Australia in monthly doses by medical giant CSL.
‘Unlikely’ Australia targeted
Italy, one of the European countries hardest hit by coronavirus, has been under growing pressure to vaccinate its ageing population, with only about 4.8 million people out of more than 60 million receiving their first shots so far.
On Thursday the country reported 22,865 new cases of COVID-19 and an additional 339 deaths from the virus, taking its total death toll to just short of 100,000 people.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office last month, told fellow EU leaders earlier this week that the bloc needed to speed up vaccinations and crack down on pharma companies that failed to deliver on promised supplies.
Mr Draghi and his government has made the vaccination rollout a “high priority”, epidemiology economics expert Aditya Goenka told the ABC.
Professor Goenka said it was “very unlikely” Italy was targeting Australia specifically.
“How do you reconcile public health in your own country versus meeting your commitments is a complex issue and it has reared itself in this case?” he said.
“I don’t think this will be the last case we see. I think we’re likely to see more cases of this kind going forward.”