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Italy blocks export of Covid-19 vaccine to Australia

ROME, Italy: Italy invoked European Union powers to block the export of 250,000 Covid-19 vaccine doses to Australia on Thursday, in a dramatic escalation of a dispute between the EU and drug giant AstraZeneca.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s spokesperson Paola Ansuini confirmed to the media, adding that Italy and the European Commission had agreed on the action. This is the first time that such EU measures have been used for vaccines.

In late January, a public and acrimonious fight erupted between the EU and AstraZeneca over vaccine delays, after the company advised the bloc that it would deliver tens of millions fewer doses than agreed by the end of March.

The European Commission later adopted new measures giving member states the power to restrict the export of Covid-19 vaccines outside the bloc, in certain situations. The mechanism is not supposed to affect humanitarian aid or COVAX, the global initiative aiming to distribute some 2 billion vaccines to poorer countries.

The 27-nation bloc’s vaccine rollout has continued to falter, pushing some increasingly frustrated member states to turn to outside nations for assistance. Only 5.5% of the EU population of 447 million has received a first vaccine dose, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

On Thursday, Italy’s Foreign Ministry explained its decision to block AstraZeneca from exporting its vaccine, citing the company’s delays in supplying its vaccine to Italy and the European Union, and noting that Australia is not considered a “vulnerable” nation by the EU.

According to the ministry statement, Italy has previously authorized the company’s export of “modest quantities of samples intended for scientific research activities,” but flagged the shipment in question because it involved 250,700 doses.

The statement cited “the high number of vaccine doses subject to the export authorization request compared to the number of doses provided to Italy and, more generally, to EU countries so far.”

AstraZeneca has declined to comment on the Italian decision.

Australia said it had asked for a review after its shipment of a quarter of a million AstraZeneca vaccines was blocked from leaving the European Union in the bloc’s first use of an export control system designed to ensure big pharma companies would respect their contracts.

Italy’s order blocking the dispatch of 250,000 doses was accepted by the European Commission, which has fiercely criticised the Anglo-Swedish company this year for supplying just a fraction of the vaccine doses it had promised.

“Australia has raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels, and in particular we have asked the European Commission to review this decision,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne on Friday.

Hunt said Australia had already received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca shot, which would last until it was able to produce more of the vaccine locally.

While seeking the European Commission’s intervention, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he could understand the reasons for Italy’s objection.

“In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and many countries across Europe,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.

Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU established an export control system for Covid-19 vaccines.

Under the commission’s “transparency and authorisation mechanism” EU member states vet planned exports of authorised Covid-19 vaccines that leave the bloc.