France backs Italy in vaccine ban as EU defends mechanism

FILE - In this  Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 file photo, a pharmacist prepares a syringe from a vial of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine during preparations at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium. A shipment of a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been barred from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc over a month ago. An EU official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed a report that first appeared in the Financial Times. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 file photo, a pharmacist prepares a syringe from a vial of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine during preparations at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium. A shipment of a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been barred from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc over a month ago. An EU official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed a report that first appeared in the Financial Times. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BRUSSELS – Europe's vaccine solidarity got a boost on Friday after France said it could emulate Italy's move to block coronavirus vaccine exports outside the European Union if that's what is needed to enforce the bloc's own contracts with drugs manufacturers.

The European Union defended the Italian authorities' decision to stop a large shipment of doses destined for Australia as part of a longstanding feud with drug manufacturer AstraZeneca.

The EU's executive arm said the decision was not targeting Australia but that it had been taken to ensure that AstraZeneca delivers the number of doses it committed to dispatching to EU countries.

“The fact is that the European Union is a major exporter of vaccine doses," said EU Commission chief spokesman Eric Mamer.

Faced with dose shortages during the early stages of the vaccine campaign, the EU announced in early January an export control mechanism halting deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines outside the bloc in a bid to force companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc first.

Since the mechanism entered into force on Jan. 30, the Commission said that 174 authorizations of vaccine exports to 30 different countries outside the EU have been approved.

The EU has been particularly upset by AstraZeneca because the company 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 this year, the company will be struggling to deliver half that quantity.

“We believe that this vaccine is an important element of our portfolio and we therefore are expecting the delivery of the agreed doses,” Mamer said. “We are working with the companies in order to ensure that they deliver the doses that are foreseen for the European Union. For all those companies that are doing that, there are no problem with exports."