A shipment of more than 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the EU, in the first use of an plan by Brussels to make sure big drug companies stick to their contracts.
The move, affecting only a small number of vaccines, underscores a growing frustration within the EU about the slow roll-out of its vaccine drive and the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries, especially by Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca.
The ban came after a request by Italy, and the EU did not raise objections to the tougher line Rome has adopted in dealing with vaccine shortages in the bloc.
Italy’s objections centred both on the general shortage of supplies in the EU and on “the delays in the supply of vaccines by AstraZeneca to the EU and Italy”, a foreign ministry statement said.
It said it also intervened because of the size of the shipment, more than 250,700 doses that would go to Australia, which it did not consider a vulnerable nation.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was described as “defending Italy’s national interests”. The Italian foreign ministry said it objected to the “very high” number of doses that AstraZeneca wanted to export and pointed to “delays on the part of AstraZeneca in the supply of vaccines” for the export ban.
It said Australia had registered very few Covid-19 cases and deaths compared with Europe and noted the dearth of jabs in Italy and other EU countries.
Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for Covid-19 vaccines in late January, forcing companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports could be approved.
The EU has been specifically angry with AstraZeneca because it is delivering far fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised. Of the initial order for 80 million doses to the EU in the first quarter, the company will be struggling to deliver just half that quantity.
There were rumours the company was siphoning off from EU production plants to other nations, but CEO Pascal Soriot said that any shortfall was to be blamed on technical production issues only.
The EU has vaccinated only 8pc of its population compared with more than 30pc in the UK. Australia is still at the start of its vaccine drive. With such an action, the EU is caught in a bind. It is under intense pressure to ramp up the production of vaccines in the bloc, but it also wants to remain an attractive hub for pharmaceutical giants and a fair trading partner to third countries.
The EU thought it had made perfect preparations for the roll-out of vaccinations, heavily funding research and production capacity over the past year. With its 450 million people, the EU has signed deals for six different vaccines suppliers. In total, it has ordered up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and sealed agreements with other companies for more than two billion shots.
It says that despite the current difficulties it is still convinced it can vaccinate 70pc of the adult population by the end of summer.
Source: Irish News