Australia has asked the EU to review Italy’s decision to block the export of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to its shores, as the French government said it too could impose bans in the future.
The ban – the first such use of the controversial new power – was brought up during a discussion between Australia’s trade minister Dan Tehan and his European commission counterpart Valdis Dombrovskis on Friday.
A spokesman for the commission, which approved the Italian government’s decision to reject the latest export request by AstraZeneca, said Dombrovskis had explained the move. “Progress needs to be made on the deliveries to EU countries,” the spokesman said.
The EU has been engaged in high-profile row with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company after it informed officials of a shortfall in deliveries this quarter due to a production problem in one of its EU sites.
A mechanism under which vaccine suppliers would need to gain authorisation for exports out of the EU was drawn up in January amid concerns that doses made within the bloc were being delivered to the UK.
The commission had insisted for weeks that the mechanism was primarily about transparency. But Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, had privately assured the 27 EU heads of state and government at a summit last week that exports would be prevented in cases where suppliers were not fulfilling their contractual obligations.
The Italian government gained approval from the the commission last week for its decision to block AstraZeneca’s latest export request, marking the first such use of the export authorisation mechanism.
The move has alarmed those concerned that the EU is moving towards a protectionist approach to vaccine supply.
Greg Hunt, the country’s health minister said the Australian government had asked Brussels to review the ban.
“Australia has raised the issue with the European commission through multiple channels, and in particular we have asked the European commission to review this decision,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
Hunt said Australia had already received 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, which would last until local production of the vaccine increases.
Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, played down the impact of Italy’s decision to block the export.
“This particular shipment was not one we’d counted on for the rollout, and so we will continue unabated,” he said. “In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe. They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia.”
AstraZeneca has production sites in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Australia has purchased 53m doses from the company, the first of which are due to be distributed this month. The vaccine has the advantage of being able to be kept in normal refrigerated conditions rather than in freezers.
AstraZeneca had made deliveries to Italy last week that were about 10-15% lighter than expected. But the company had insisted it would respect its commitment to supply the country with 4.2m doses in the first quarter of the year.
The Italian government, under its new prime minister, Mario Draghi, formerly president of the European Central Bank, had voiced his concerns that the EU was not being stricter on exports during the leaders’ summit.
Italy’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Australia was not considered to be a vulnerable country and that the decision was made due to the “persistence of the vaccine shortage in the EU and Italy, the delays in supply of AstraZeneca vaccines to the EU and Italy and the very high number of doses” that the company wanted to export.
On Friday, France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, said his government could follow suit given the shortage of doses in Europe.
Bernd Lange, the German MEP who chairs the European parliament’s trade committee said the move was a mistake that others would emulate.
He tweeted: “Pandora’s box opened. Mistake. Carte blanche for imitators. Could have fatal consequences, eg on supply chains. Prelude to global battle over Covid-19 vaccines? Escalation inevitable.”
The EU has approved over 500 vaccine export requests to 30 countries since the authorisation scheme was brought into force but it has been criticised for adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to production and distribution.
AstraZeneca was due to provide 120m doses of its vaccine to the EU in the first quarter of this year but was able to commit to only 40m due to yield issues at its site in Belgium.
The commission had been furious that the company then refused to redirect doses made in its two UK plants, in Staffordshire and Oxford, to the EU.
Under its agreement with Oxford University, which devised the vaccine, the company said it was bound to use doses made in those sites in the UK first, before fulfilling its other orders.
The EU has a total order of 400m doses with AstraZeneca. Germany, France and Belgium are among EU countries that have in recent days changed their guidance on the vaccine to recommend it for all age groups.