Italy, backed by the EU, has blocked 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine being shipped to Australia – and there is no guarantee that future shipments won’t be hoarded for use by European countries where the coronavirus is still out of control.
This is the first instance of the EU making good on its threat – flagged in January – to control exports of vaccines produced in the bloc in a bid to secure supply for its citizens.
Germany and the UK have criticised the move but France has said it may follow Italy’s lead if that is what’s needed to enforce the bloc’s own contracts with drugs manufacturers.
If there’s any good news in the move it’s that Europe has done an about-face in its initial assessment of the AstraZeneca as a second-rate jab.
With vaccine production and deployment running slow in Europe – and with Italy still battling 20,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day – the EU is likely to repeat this action to suit their own needs.
The World Health Organisation has warned the pandemic will not be brought under control if the “growing trend” of vaccine nationalism continues.
What does this mean for Australia?
If Australia were to rely solely on importing the AstraZeneca vaccine – the jab that most Australians will receive – we would be in a woefully vulnerable position.
But of the 53.8 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on order, 50 million are being manufactured in Melbourne by CSL (originally the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories).
Subject to TGA approval of the locally manufactured vaccine, the company is reportedly on track to begin rolling out a million doses a week from the end of March.
The 3.8 million imported doses were meant to cover the gap between, well, now and the end of the month. About 300,000 of these arrived at the end of February and are now being rolled out.
Will we see any more arrive from overseas? The honest answer is: who knows?
The New Daily asked CSL if the shortfall will be made up by increasing local production. Immediate answer: the company appeared to be caught by surprise at Italy’s move. A statement from the company later in the day advised that “questions about manufacture of additional doses are best directed to the Australian Government who hold the contract with AstraZeneca for supply of 3.8 million doses from overseas.”
The company also advised: “We expect the first approved doses to be available in late March and approximately a million doses a week being released from then on.”
A call to AstraZeneca went unanswered. No doubt a busy day.
At a press conference on Friday, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be unaffected by Italy’s sanctioned piracy.
Mr Hunt was asked if AstraZeneca had committed to supply those ‘missing’ 250,000 doses from “elsewhere in the world?”
He said: “At this stage, there’s been no change in their guidance to us. That was reaffirmed to me this morning. I will respectfully not pre-empt the dates for the very reasons that I think every one of you understands about the security, but I am confident that, in the near future, there may be more announcements in relation to the arrival of both vaccines.”
Equally vague was his assurance that Australia has sufficient AstraZeneca vaccine in the country to last until CSL begins producing the jab domestically.
What that really means: we’ll need to make do with what we’ve got for the next few weeks.
Professor Robert Booy, an infectious diseases specialist from the University of Sydney, said about Italy’s move: “Well, when we look at their situation, they’ve had nearly 100,000 deaths. We’ve had less than 1,000.
“They have maybe 20,000 new cases per day. We have virtually none. So you can understand where they’re coming from. There’s vaccine nationalism because they have real, severe disease where they are, and we haven’t.”
He said the real concern is that “we’ll be 250,000 doses short of where we wanted to be.”
At the least.