Officials in Europe have blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia in a ploy set to trigger a major diplomatic dispute.
The decision is the first time the European Commission has used its powers over whether vaccines manufactured on the continent by Pfizer and AstraZeneca can leave its territory.
The export controls – which have been widely criticised as a dangerous example of “vaccine nationalism” – were hurriedly drawn up in January after the drug giants warned supply to Europe over coming months would be slashed because of production delays.
More than 150 international deliveries were authorised without a hitch over recent weeks, but Italy has now opposed the delivery to Australia. Rome’s objection was endorsed by the European Commission.
Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified the ban by saying Australia is considered “not vulnerable” at this point in the coronavirus pandemic. It also said AstraZeneca was trying to send a “high number” of doses to Australia compared to the quantity supplied to Italy and other countries on the continent.
Italy’s objection was lodged with the European Commission last Friday.
AstraZeneca was informed on Tuesday this week that the shipment would be blocked – raising questions about whether the Australian government knew there was a problem but has not said anything publicly in the hope the standoff could be resolved.
Italy’s decision was not disclosed by the company’s global chief executive officer Pascal Soriot during a number of interviews he conducted with Australian media outlets on Thursday.
The first 300,000 doses of the Europe-manufactured Oxford University-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine landed on Australian soil last Sunday morning.
Some 50 million AstraZeneca doses will be manufactured at a factory in Melbourne but 3.8 million will have to arrive from overseas, primarily Europe.
Australia is thought to be collateral damage in an ongoing war of words between European officials and AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company. The European Union is unhappy that the company has not delivered the number of doses it expected.
Newly installed Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi criticised the export of vaccines during a recent meeting of EU leaders in late January.
However, millions of AstraZeneca doses have been put into storage across Europe because some citizens are refusing to take them.
French President Emmanuel Macron falsely called it “quasi ineffective” for the elderly, a comment which is widely seen as having caused huge damage to crucial public confidence in the jabs.
A string of nations in Europe earlier this year said the vaccine should not be given to over 65s, citing a lack of trial data. However, most are now reversing that decision given the vaccine is proving hugely successful in Britain.
The EU has previously described the export controls as a “transparency and authorisation mechanism”. The regulation underpinning the measure states it is not the intention of the EU to “restrict exports any more than absolutely necessary”.
The European Commission has also repeatedly denied the mechanism would represent an “export ban”.
Under the system, Pfizer and AstraZeneca have to ask countries where the vaccine was manufactured for approval before the jabs can be flown abroad.
If the country decides to reject the application, it must consult with the European Commission. The European Commission has the power to oppose the country’s decision but did not in the case of the shipment bound for Australia.
But the approach has prompted an outcry from a host of experts and officials who believe it represents a dangerous precedent in so-called “vaccine nationalism”.
It was also viewed as an attempt by the bloc to find a culprit for its trouble-plagued rollout, which is lagging well behind Britain’s.
AstraZeneca is manufacturing the vaccine in the Netherlands and Belgium but uses partners in Germany and Italy to “fill” the medication into vials and package it.
International Chamber of Commerce Secretary-General John Denton said while he understood the political pressures at play within Europe, “blocking exports to meet domestic vaccination targets is a very dangerous card for policymakers to play”.
“Vaccine manufacturing within the EU relies on an inherently global supply chain that – as we’ve repeatedly warned – is vulnerable to any escalation of retaliatory trade measures.
“These global production networks are already showing signs of severe strain, as demand for essential manufacturing inputs rises to unprecedented levels.
“Simply put, using export curbs to get your hands on a few thousand doses of vaccines might yield an immediate political win at home but it comes with a potentially heavy price if European manufacturers find themselves unable to source the inputs needed to sustain – let alone – scale production.”