Australia is asking the EU government for assurances that future vaccine shipments will not be halted after Italy banned AstraZeneca’s massive export of coronavirus vaccine.
The shipment of over a quarter of a million doses to Australia was blocked en route out of the 27-nation bloc – the first use of an EU export control system to ensure that large pharmaceutical companies are complying with their contracts with the EU.
The ban was requested by the Italian authorities and sanctioned by the EU in a move that frustrated the Australian government.
“The world is currently on uncharted territory, so it is not surprising that some countries are breaking the rules of the game,” Treasury Secretary Simon Birmingham told Sky News Australia on Friday.
However, Birmingham confirmed that Australia received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week, and “this will make our current distribution plan work.”
The Australian vaccination program started last month and the government expects the vaccine to be made available to anyone who wants it by October. The country has received 53.8 million doses of the vaccine made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, of which 50 million are made in Australia in partnership with Melbourne-based biopharmaceutical company CSL.
“We are obviously disappointed and frustrated with this decision,” said Birmingham. “It is a reminder of the desperation that reigns in other parts of the world compared to the very good position we were in here in Australia.”
According to Australian media, Health Minister Greg Hunt has asked the European Commission to review the Italian decision.
The shipping ban was the latest development in the dispute between the EU and AstraZeneca over delivery delays.
Faced with dose shortages in the early stages of the vaccine campaign that began in the bloc in late December, the EU issued an export control system for COVID-19 vaccines in late January, forcing companies to meet their contractual obligations to the bloc before trading exports can be approved.
The EU was particularly angry with AstraZeneca for supplying the block with far fewer doses than it had promised. From the initial order for 80 million cans from the EU in the first quarter, the company will struggle to deliver half that amount.
The EU said it had made excellent preparations for the launch of the vaccines. With 450 million inhabitants, the EU has signed agreements on six different vaccines. In total, the company has ordered up to 400 million doses of the vaccine from AstraZeneca and has agreements with other companies for more than 2 billion doses.
However, to date only 33 million doses have been given and only 11 million Europeans have been fully vaccinated. Despite the current difficulties, the EU continues to aim to vaccinate 70% of the bloc’s adult population by the end of summer.