Australia asks Brussels to review Italian blockade on vaccine exports


Australia has asked the European Commission to review Italy’s decision to ‘tear up the regulations’ and block a shipment of the Oxford / AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to the Pacific nation.

Although Canberra on Friday expressed frustration that the shipment had been halted, it also sought to reassure the Australian public that the incident would not affect the rollout of vaccines in the country.

“The world is currently in uncharted territory, it’s no surprise that some countries are tearing up the rulebook,” said Simon Birmingham, Australia’s finance minister.

Birmingham told Sky News Italy’s action was disappointing. But he also pointed out Australia’s success by containing Covid-19 compared to the desperation of other nations.

Canberra insisted the government would have “more than enough” vaccine to distribute until local manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine begins at the end of March.

Italy blocked a shipment of 250,700 Oxford / AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines destined for Australia because the Pacific country was not considered a “vulnerable country”.

It was the first intervention since the EU introduced rules on transporting vaccines outside the bloc in response to delays in deployment AstraZeneca vaccine to Member States. The commission had the power to oppose the Italian decision, but failed to do so, officials said.

Greg Hunt, Australia’s Minister of Health, said Canberra “has raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels”.

Analysts have warned that Italy’s move threatens to ignite global tensions over vaccine procurement after EU allies objected to the introduction of a export regime.

Australia has handled the pandemic better than most developed countries and has only a handful of Covid-19 infections, almost all of which are quarantined in hotels. The country has started to vaccinate vulnerable people with the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine and administered its first inoculation with the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.

Hassan Vally, associate professor at La Trobe University, said Rome’s decision to block the vaccine was not unexpected.

“The vaccine supply issues for Australia have always been a probability during the pandemic and factored into vaccine deployment plans,” said Vally.

“This is one of the reasons we signed agreements to get a lot more vaccines than needed and also why we took a diverse portfolio approach.”

Health experts in Australia said Italy’s move reflected a trend vaccine nationalism, adding that it was essential for the Pacific nation to maintain its local manufacturing capacity.

“This underlines the importance for Australia to have a certain level of independence in the production of vaccines through CSL [Australia’s biggest drugmaker]Said Terry Nolan, head of vaccine and immunization research at the Doherty Institute and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

“It also reminds us that we do not have mRNA manufacturing capacity in Australia and that we urgently need to find ways to achieve it.”

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