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London: Officials in Europe have blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia in a ploy set to trigger a major diplomatic dispute.
The decision is the first time the European Commission has used its powers over whether vaccines manufactured on the continent by Pfizer and AstraZeneca can leave its territory.
The export controls – which have been widely criticised as a dangerous example of “vaccine nationalism” – were hurriedly drawn up in January after the drug giants warned supply to Europe over coming months would be slashed because of production delays.
More than 150 international deliveries were authorised without a hitch over recent weeks, but Italy has now opposed the delivery to Australia. Rome’s objection was endorsed by the European Commission.
Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified the ban by saying Australia is considered “not vulnerable” at this point in the coronavirus pandemic. It also said AstraZeneca was trying to send a “high number” of doses to Australia compared to the quantity supplied to Italy and other countries on the continent.
Italy’s objection was lodged with the European Commission last Friday.
AstraZeneca was informed on Tuesday this week that the shipment would be blocked – raising questions about whether the Australian government knew there was a problem but has not said anything publicly in the hope the standoff could be resolved.
Comment has been sought from Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt.
On Today, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said the Italian blockade of 250,000 doses was “not going to affect the rollout”.
“I thin.k the main message is again not that there is a problem here but that you need to really get in early if you’re in the age group or in the category 1A, 1B… ”
“We need to get to herd immunity that way we can get our borders open and get back to normal life,” Dutton said.
The European Commission declined to comment. AstraZeneca has also been contacted for comment.
Italy’s decision was not disclosed by the company’s global chief executive officer Pascal Soriot during a number of interviews he conducted with Australian media outlets on Thursday.
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