A shipment of a quarter-of-a-million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc to make sure big pharmaceutical companies would respect their contracts.
The move, affecting only a small number of vaccines, underscores a growing frustration within the 27-nation bloc about the slow rollout of its vaccine drive and the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries, especially by Anglo/Swedish firm AstraZeneca.
The Financial Times first reported on Thursday on the ban that came at the behest of Italy, and an unnamed EU official confirmed the bloc’s executive Commission did not raise objections.
Italy has been taking a tough line in dealing with vaccine shortages in the bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power last month.
Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for Covid-19 vaccines in late January, forcing companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports could be approved.
The EU has been in dispute with AstraZeneca because it is delivering 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 half that quantity.
There were rumours that the company was siphoning off from EU production plants to other nations, but chief executive Pascal Soriot insisted that any shortfall was to be blamed on technical production issues only.
The company refused to comment on Thursday’s news.
The EU has vaccinated some 8% of its population compared to over 30%, for example, in the United Kingdom. Australia is still at the start of its vaccination drive.
With such an action, the EU is caught in a bind. On the one hand, it is under intense pressure to ramp up the production of vaccines in the bloc while on the other hand it wants to remain an attractive hub for pharmaceutical giants and a fair trading partner to third countries.
The EU made preparations for the rollout of vaccinations, heavily funding research and production capacity over the past year.
With its 450 million people, the EU 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.
It says that despite the current difficulties it is still convinced it can vaccinate 70% of the adult population by the end of summer.
Support The Courier today.
The Courier is committed to delivering quality content to our communities and right now that’s more important than ever — which is why our key content is free. However, you can support us and access premium content by subscribing to The Courier from just £5.99 a month. Because Local Matters.Subscribe