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France, EU back Italy’s decision to block Covid-19 vaccine shipment to Australia

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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.

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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, and Germany.

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 January 30, the Commission said that 174 authorisations of vaccine exports to 30 different countries outside the EU have been approved.

The EU has been particularly angry with AstraZeneca because it 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, the company will be struggling to deliver just half that quantity.

There were rumours that AstraZeneca was siphoning off from EU production plants to other nations, but CEO Pascal Soriot insisted that any shortfall was to be blamed on technical production issues only.

The EU has vaccinated only 8 percent of its population compared to over 30 percent, for example, in the United Kingdom. Australia is still very much at the start of its vaccination drive.

“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.”

Signs of division in the EU

As serum supplies remain scarce in the 27-nation region amid delays in deliveries and production issues, European nations have shown signs of divisions recently. Several countries have expressed their frustration over the slow rollout of doses and are looking for extra supply of vaccines outside of the joint procurement set up by the EU.

But Italy’s decision to block the shipment of more than 250,000 AstraZeneca doses destined for Australia closed ranks between member states. French health minister Olivier Véran said he “understood” the Italian’s government decision and indicated France “could do the same”.

“Believe me, the more doses I have, the happier I am as health minister,” Véran said in an interview with BFMTV channel, adding that France and its European partners are determined to have their contracts with drug makers enforced.

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.

Italy said it had informed the company on Tuesday. AstraZeneca refused to comment. 

Highlighting the EU’s role in the vaccine research, development and production, the German government also justified the export restriction.

“In general, vaccine exports aren’t stopped as long as the contracts with the EU are abided by,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. “A lot of vaccines go from the EU to third countries, while nothing or almost nothing is exported from the United States and Great Britain.”

Earlier, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that in general terms, it was right for the EU to ensure that vaccine makers followed through on promised deliveries. But he also said that it was important for EU-wide coordination on export restrictions.

The EU thought it had prepared soundly for the rollout of vaccines to its 450 million people. It has signed deals for six different vaccines. In total, it has ordered up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and sealed agreements with other companies for more than two billion shots.

But only 33 million doses have been given so far, and only 11 million Europeans have been fully vaccinated. Despite the current difficulties, the EU’s goal remains to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population in the bloc by the end of summer.

The Italian government’s move marked the first use of the export control system and it has frustrated the Australian government, which is seeking assurances from the EU’s executive arm that future shipments of vaccines will not be blocked.

“The world is in uncharted territory at present. It’s unsurprising that some countries would tear up the rule book,” Australian Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News Australia on Friday. Birmingham acknowledged, however, that Australia had received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week, and “that will see our current distribution plan work”.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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