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EU blocks vaccine shipment to Australia

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A shipment of more than 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union, in the first use of an export control system to make sure big pharma companies respect their contracts.

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The move underscores a growing frustration within the 27-nation bloc about the slow rollout of its vaccine drive and the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries, especially by Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca.

The ban came at the behest of Italy, and the EU did not raise objections to the tougher line Rome has adopted in dealing with vaccine shortages in the bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power in February.

Italy’s objections centered 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 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.

Italy said it had informed the company on Tuesday. AstraZeneca refused to comment.

But, speaking ahead of the decision by Italy, AstraZeneca’s global head Pascal Soriot told The Australian that countries are trying to hold on to supplies of the vaccine.

“Countries are holding onto their supply everwhere,” the CEO said in the interview published on Friday in Australia.

“A year ago everybody was talking about sharing, fair and equitable access.

“Now they’re saying ‘fair and equitable access yes, but after I’ve been served’.”

Soriot said Australia needed to have strategic independence “from a vaccine point of view”.

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.

This forces companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can 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.

-AAP

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