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Italy blocks shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia

Covid-19 vaccines

Italy blocks shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia

Intervention threatens to increase global tensions over procurement of Covid jabs

Rome decided to prevent the export of 250,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, officials said © FT montage; Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Italy has blocked a shipment of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine that was destined for Australia, in the first intervention since the EU introduced rules over the shipment of vaccines outside the bloc. 

Rome stopped the export of 250,000 doses of the vaccine, officials said. Italy notified Brussels of its move at the end of last week under the EU’s vaccine export transparency regime. The European Commission had the power to object to the Italian decision and did not, officials said.

The move threatened to inflame global tensions over vaccine procurement after EU allies objected to the introduction of its export regime. Under the controversial system announced by the commission at the end of January, EU-based vaccine manufacturers must seek authorisation from the national government where their Covid-19 jabs are produced before exporting them out of the EU.

The scheme formed part of Brussels’ response to an admission by AstraZeneca that it would miss targets for vaccine delivery to the EU, stoking EU suspicions that production had been shipped elsewhere.

Mario Draghi, Italy’s new prime minister, questioned why the bloc had not imposed stricter vaccine export controls for companies that were not in compliance with their contractual commitments at a summit of EU leaders last month.

AstraZeneca in January revealed a big shortfall in its vaccine deliveries to the EU because of production problems in Europe. It is now targeting 40m doses for the first quarter, much less than the previously envisaged figure of at least 100m doses.

AstraZeneca declined to comment, as did the commission. The Australian mission to the EU did not respond to requests for comment.

Italy’s foreign ministry said that it had requested the commission block the export of 250,700 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia because the latter was considered a “non-vulnerable” country. It also cited “the high number of vaccine doses covered by the request . . . compared to the quantity of doses supplied so far to Italy and, more generally, to EU countries”.

Draghi has said that speeding up Italy’s vaccination drive would be the focal point of the first months of his premiership.

This week, the Italian government announced new vaccination targets. As of March 2, the country had inoculated 4.6m people.

As part of this drive, Draghi has also replaced the two figures in charge of the programme under Italy’s previous government.

This week, he appointed army general Francesco Paolo Figliuolo as the country’s new Covid-19 emergency commissioner, replacing Domenico Arcuri. The prime minister also appointed a new head of Italy’s civil protection agency.

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