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Italy blocks shipment of vaccines to Australia and retaliates against Astra-Zeneca’s broken promises

Canberra does not seem to be really concerned by Rome withholding 250,000 doses of jabs

by: Stephanie Iancu

A shipment of 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine destined for Australia was blocked by Italian authorities amid growing concerns around lagging vaccination campaigns in Europe.

The Italian foreign affairs minister, Luigi di Maio, declared during a press conference that this choice “was not a hostile act” and that Italian authorities were simply acting on behalf of European regulation. The regulation he was referring to was passed on January 30th 2021 and it enables EU member states to keep vaccines made in Europe if the agreed amount of vaccines has not been supplied. This decision by Rome marked the first instance in which it was put into practice by a member state — with the European Commission having approved 174 export requests so far.

Photo courtesy of torstensimon via Pixabay.

After consulting with French foreign authorities, the two governments, backed by the European Commission

decided that forbidding the export of these doses was conforming to regulations.

The prohibition on exporting the vaccines from Italy was due to the fact that AstraZeneca had not fulfilled its promise to deliver sufficient doses to the EU within a previously defined time frame. The company had initially committed to delivering around 90 million doses, but was forced to come back on the terms of its contract due to a production problem on its EU sites, and pronounce that it could only deliver about 40 million doses by the end of the month. European authorities also accused the firm of breaching contractual obligations and wrongfully sending doses to the United Kingdom that had initially been promised to the EU.

Italian authorities went on to explain that Australia is currently regarded as “nonvulnerable” and does therefore not qualify to receive such a shipment. On the other hand, vaccines are in short supply throughout Italy and the European Union is still one of the regions that is most critically affected by the pandemic. According to a New York Times database, Australia has recently only been averaging around 9 new cases a day, whereas Italy has been averaging more than 18,000 a day.

Italy has also reported more than 3 million confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 tracking project.

AstraZeneca has declined to comment about the situation but the Australian government has since raised the issue with the European Commission and asked for a review of the decision. Even so, Australian officials do not seem overly concerned by the situation and affirmed in early March that it was only “one particular shipment from one particular country”. Australian health minister Greg Hunt also sought to reassure Australian citizens by declaring that the setback would not affect the pace of vaccine distribution. Australian PM Scott Morrison even went as far as expressing his understanding towards Italy, saying that the EU is currently “in an unbridled crisis situation” and that “[this] is not the situation in Australia.”

Despite the approval of this action by the European Commission, German officials expressed concern about this type of unilateral decisions,

fearing that they may have a negative impact on global vaccine supplies in the future through the potential disruption of supply chains.

Many have started to anticipate that the EU is moving towards an increasingly protectionist approach to vaccine supply — the block has already been accused of “vaccine nationalism” in the past. Fears of an international tug of war over doses and the dismantling of cooperation towards global recovery are growing amid a pandemic that has already exposed the shortcomings of global trade and diplomacy multiple times.


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