Italy blocks Astrazeneca vaccine shipment to Australia amid frustrations over shortages

4 March 2021, 19:47 | Updated: 5 March 2021, 15:07

There is a growing frustration within the EU over a shortfall in promised vaccine deliveries
There is a growing frustration within the EU over a shortfall in promised vaccine deliveries. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Italy has blocked a shipment of Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccines destined for Australia in the first use of an EU export control system put in place to ensure big pharmaceutical companies respect their contracts.

The move, which affects 250,000 doses, comes amid growing frustration within the 27-nation bloc about the speed of its vaccine rollout and a shortfall in promised vaccine deliveries, especially by British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.

A statement from the Italian foreign ministry said: "The Italian proposal to deny the authorisation was approved by the European Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then formally issued the export denial order on the same day."

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Italy has been taking a tough line in dealing with vaccine shortages in the bloc 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 rollout, the EU issued an export control system for Covid-19 vaccines, forcing companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports could be approved.

The EU has been in dispute with AstraZeneca because it is delivering fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised.

Of the initial order for 80 million doses in the first quarter, the company will be struggling to deliver half that quantity.

There were rumours the company was siphoning off from EU production plants to other nations, but chief executive Pascal Soriot insisted any shortfall was to be blamed on technical production issues only.

The company refused to comment on Thursday's news.

The EU has vaccinated 8% of its population compared to over 30% in the United Kingdom. Australia is still at the start of its vaccination drive.

With its 450 million people, the bloc has signed deals for six different vaccines.

In total, it has ordered up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and more than two billion shots from other companies.

It says, despite the current difficulties, it will still vaccinate 70% of the adult population by the end of summer.

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