EU, Italy stop AstraZeneca vaccine exports to Australia

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A healthcare worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to a Brussels police chief inspector Didier Bruer at the Brussels Expo center in Brussels, Thursday, March 4, 2021. The Expo is one of the largest vaccination centers in Belgium. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

BRUSSELS – A shipment of more than a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union, in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc to make sure big pharma companies would respect their contracts.

The move, affecting only a small number of vaccines, 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 Feb 13.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Friday it had anticipated veto problems could arise in shipments from Europe, adding that Australia's inoculation schedule would continue as planned.

“They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia,” Morrison said. “But, nevertheless, we have been able to secure our supplies, and additional supplies for importation, both with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, which means we can continue the rollout of our program.”

He said most significantly, Australia was also producing vaccines domestically, giving it sovereignty over its vaccination program.

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 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.