France backs Italy’s blocking of vaccine shipment to Australia

Canberra asks commission to review decision while expressing sympathy for EU

France has backed Italy's blocking of a shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, as Canberra urged Brussels to review Rome's move to "tear up the rule book" in a sign of global vaccine supply tensions.

“We could do the same,” Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, said in an interview on French television, in response to a question about Rome’s halting of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca doses destined for Australia.

Italy’s move is the first intervention since the EU introduced rules for the transport of vaccines outside the bloc, which came in response to delays in the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to member states. The European Commission has the power to object to the Italian decision but did not, officials said.

Rome said it had made the decision to retain the shipment because Australia was not considered a “vulnerable country”.

Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, adopted a more cautious tone on Friday. He said of the Italian move: “With a measure like that, in the short term there’s a win, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t cause us problems in the medium-term by disrupting the supply chains for vaccines and everything that’s needed in terms of precursors.”

The suspension of the shipment underlines the global race to secure vaccines as drug manufacturers struggle to meet production targets and suffer delivery delays. The EU has had a slower start than the US, Israel and the UK in vaccinating its citizens and is confronting a fresh rise in infections in some parts of the bloc, including in central Europe and France.

Sympathy for EU

Canberra on Friday asked the European Commission to review Italy’s decision, while also expressing sympathy for the EU’s situation.

"In Italy people are dying at the rate of 300 a day," said prime minister Scott Morrison. "So I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe, as is regularly conveyed to me. And so they have some real difficulties there . . . That is not the situation in Australia."

Simon Birmingham, Australia’s finance minister, said: “The world is in uncharted territory at present, it’s unsurprising that some countries would tear up the rule book.” Mr Birmingham also highlighted Australia’s success in containing Covid-19 compared with the desperation of other nations.

Canberra insisted the government would have “more than enough” vaccines to distribute until local production of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine begins in late March.

Greg Hunt, Australia’s health minister, said Canberra “had raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels”.

Risk of inflaming global tensions

Analysts warned that Italy’s move threatened to inflame global tensions over vaccine procurement after EU allies objected to the introduction of an export regime.

Australia has managed the pandemic better than most developed nations and has only a handful of Covid-19 infections, almost all of them in hotel quarantine. The country has begun vaccinating vulnerable people with the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and on Friday administered its first inoculation with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Hassan Vally, an associate professor at La Trobe University, said Rome’s decision to block the vaccine was not unexpected.

“Problems with the procuring of vaccines for Australia was always a likelihood during the pandemic and factored into the vaccine rollout plans,” Mr Vally said. “It’s one of the reasons we signed agreements to obtain many more vaccines than we required and also why we adopted a diverse portfolio approach.”

Health experts in Australia said Italy’s move reflected a trend towards vaccine nationalism, adding that it was crucial that the Pacific country maintained local manufacturing capability.

“It does underline the importance of Australia having some level of independence in vaccine production via CSL [Australia’s biggest drugmaker],” said Terry Nolan, head of vaccine and immunisation research at the Doherty Institute and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

“It also reminds us that we do not have mRNA manufacturing capacity in Australia, and we must urgently find ways to make that happen.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021