Italy has blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine that were bound for Australia.
The move, which has reportedly been backed by the European Commission, marks the first use of new export control regulations brought in at the end of January that allow exports to be stopped if the company providing the vaccines has not met its obligations to the European Union.
AstraZeneca is currently on track to provide only 40% of the agreed vaccine supply to EU member states in the first three months of 2021, with it having cited production problems.
Italy has justified the move to block the shipment of vaccine doses, packaged in Italy, by citing a shortage of vaccines in Italy and the EU and saying that Australia was not on a list of countries deemed vulnerable.
The European Union, under the EU vaccine scheme, has negotiated the purchase of vaccines on behalf of member states. However, the bloc has faced criticism for its slow rollout of Coronavirus vaccines. So far, only around 8% of the EU population has been vaccinated against the virus, much lower than the figure in the UK of more than 30%.
The EU signed a deal with Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca last August for up to 400 million doses of the vaccine, but problems with production at facilities in the Netherlands and Belgium have meant that target dates for vaccine delivery are unlikely to be met.
The delays have led to public spats between the EU and AstraZeneca, and the creation of the export control mechanism which has now been used for the first time.
In Australia, where the vaccine doses were headed, around 1.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were expected ahead of the vaccine being rolled out there from next week.
The EU, Australian Government and AstraZeneca have so far not officially commented on the situation.