• Murhaf Radi, Europe Editor

Italy 'blocks' AstraZeneca vaccine shipment to Australia




The Italian government has blocked the export of an Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine shipment to Australia.


The decision affects 250,000 doses of the vaccine produced at an AstraZeneca facility in Italy.


Italy is the first EU country to use the bloc's new regulations allowing exports to be stopped if the company providing the vaccines has failed to meet its obligations to the EU.


The move has been backed by the European Commission, reports say.


AstraZeneca is on track to provide only 40% of the agreed supply to member states in the first three months of the year. It has cited production problems for the shortfall.


In January, then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described delays in vaccine supplies by both AstraZeneca and Pfizer as "unacceptable" and accused the companies of violating their contracts.


The EU has been widely criticised for the slow pace of its vaccination programme.


Under the EU vaccine scheme, which was established in June last year, the bloc has negotiated the purchase of vaccines on behalf of member states.


There has been no official comment on the Italian move by Australia, the EU or AstraZeneca.


The Italian government also made no comment on Thursday, though it approached the European Commission last week to say that it was its intention to block the shipment.


Australia began its vaccination programme last week using the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. It was due to start inoculations with the AstraZeneca jab on Friday.


In the acrimonious vaccine war, this is a muscular move by one of the European Union's heavyweights.


It is the first such ban under a new EU scheme in which manufacturers must request authorisation for export from the country in which the vaccine is produced.


Italy's new Prime Minister Mario Draghi, an influential figure in Europe as the former president of the European Central Bank, argued in a videoconference with EU leaders that the rules should be applied rigorously, furious at reductions by AstraZeneca of up to 70% in the doses it was contracted to provide.


Mr Draghi has prioritised ramping up the vaccination programme. He is clearly determined to show that his country - and the EU - will use all means necessary to do so.


The EU signed a deal with AstraZeneca in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more, but earlier this year the UK-Swedish company reported production delays at plants in the Netherlands and Belgium.


Instead of receiving 100 million doses by the end of March, the EU is now expected to get just 40 million.


The EU accused the company of reneging on its deal, with EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides saying that UK factories making the vaccine should make up the shortfall.


Ms Kyriakides also rejected AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot's characterisation of the contract as one of "best effort" rather than an obligation to meet a deadline for delivery of vaccines.


As a result of the row, the EU announced export controls which began on 30 January, known as the "transparency and authorisation mechanism".




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