Italy has sensationally blocked 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, the first time controversial powers to keep jabs in the European Union have been used.
The move is a dramatic escalation in a dispute between the drug company and the EU over a shortfall in vaccine supplies to bloc countries that are rife with the coronavirus.
AstraZeneca had reportedly requested permission from the Italian government to export 250,000 doses to Australia from its Anagni plant near Rome.
The Italian government refused and the European Commission supported its decision, the ABC reports.
More than half of the 53 countries in Europe have registered a rise in new infections.
It comes as Australia is due to begin rolling out the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday, using the first of 300,000 imported doses which landed by plane on Sunday.
South Australia will kick things off with frontline health workers at the Murray Bridge Hospital, east of Adelaide, followed by Western Australia and then other states next week.
Australia was expecting to receive a total of 3.8 million AstraZeneca doses from overseas and to produce 50 million doses on home soil at the CSL plant in Melbourne.
The AstraZeneca vaccine will be used to inoculate most of the general population as it does not require the extremely low temperature storage of Pfizer, which is being used on frontline workers and in aged care.
The Morrison government insists the national rollout, in which 61,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given so far, is on track to ensure all Australians who want the vaccine will have at least one dose of it by October.
AstraZeneca’s plant in Anagni, Italy, is handling the final stage of its production – the so-called fill and finishing of its COVID-19 vaccine and was expected to handle hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca doses.
The Anagni plant is also expected to help produce the vaccine developed by US drug maker Johnson & Johnson.
Australian government downplays impact
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said blocking the vaccine would not affect Australia’s rollout.
Mr Dutton said the first of 50 million AstraZeneca doses to be produced locally would be ready within weeks.
“This 250,000-dose issue is not going to affect the rollout,” he told the Nine Network on Friday.
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles welcomed the government’s confidence the program would not be affected.
“We are far from leading the world in terms of vaccinating our population, but it’s good news to hear from Peter this won’t stall the rollout,” he told Nine.
Mr Dutton stressed there was no problem as he urged people to speak to their doctors to see when they could be vaccinated.
“We need to get to herd immunity that way we can get our borders open and get back to normal life,” he said.
The Australian Medical Association’s Chris Moy said the government’s decision to lock in local manufacturing would protect against “vaccine nationalism”.
“It may have a slight delay because the first three or four million were destined to come from overseas,” he told Nine.
Italy’s move came just days after Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office in February, told fellow European Union leaders that the bloc needed to speed up vaccinations and crack down on pharma companies that failed to deliver on promised supplies.
EU countries started inoculations at the end of December but are moving at a far slower pace than others, including Israel and Britain, which officials have blamed on supply problems.
In January, AstraZeneca cut its supplies to the EU in the first quarter to 40 million doses from 90 million. It later told EU countries it would cut deliveries by a further 50 per cent in the second quarter.
The company later said it was striving to supply missing doses for the second quarter from outside Europe.
Australia considers risks of new strains
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state leaders will be briefed on the risks from new strains of coronavirus and ways to respond when national cabinet meets on Friday.
The head of Mr Morrison’s department, Phil Gaetjens, has been working with his counterparts across all states and territories on improving the consistency and coordination of the COVID-19 response, both in terms of health and the economy.
Mr Gaetjens’ report will be the first in a regular series as new strains of the virus challenge the nation’s health system, and a second type of vaccine starts to be rolled out.
The leaders will also receive updates on the extent of the virus and discuss caps on international arrivals, which have been flagged for change on April 30.
Work is underway on delivering extra quarantine capacity in the Northern Territory and, potentially, southern Queensland and Victoria.
The premiers also have issues to raise.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is concerned her government has been left in the dark on key aspects of the rollout, including which aged care homes in her state have had vaccinations.
The NSW government also wasn’t given prior warning of a federal announcement about Defence personnel helping the aged care vaccine rollout from next week.
Queensland authorities are worried about a Russian strain of the virus, admitting they know little about the variant which has infected 11 people in hotel quarantine.