Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine destined for Australia in the first use of the European Union’s new controls on the export of vaccines made in the bloc.
The government of prime minister Mario Draghi decided to refuse an export permit for the shipment and notified the European Commission of its decision, and the EU did not object, according to officials.
It comes amid strong public pressure on governments for a quicker rollout of national vaccination programmes, which got off to a slower start in EU countries than in the United Kingdom and the United States
Mr Draghi, who took office last month at the head of a cross-party coalition, argued for stronger use of the new vaccine export controls and even sanctions on companies that breach their agreements at a summit of EU leaders last week.
The mechanism was introduced after AstraZeneca drastically cut its forecast deliveries to the bloc, and requires pharmaceutical companies that have signed Covid-19 vaccine deals with the EU to seek a permit from national authorities to export doses to certain non-EU countries.
The British-Swedish multinational’s cut of its expected deliveries to a fraction of the 100 million doses it had initially offered scuppered national rollout plans across the continent, and raised suspicions that doses manufactured in the bloc were being sent elsewhere at the expense of EU orders.
The export control rule lapses at the end of this month but may be extended until June, officials said. Exports of doses to low and middle income countries, that are being sent as humanitarian response, or that are destined for Western Balkan or European Economic Area countries are exempt from the controls.
However, the United Kingdom is included in the measure, something that led to the Article 16 blunder by the European Commission in January as it sought to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a backdoor if a shipment intended for Britain was refused a permit.
A number of countries including the United Kingdom and United States also have vaccine export controls, leading to concern in countries such as Canada and Australia about the security of their vaccine supply.
Mr Draghi has made speeding up Italy’s vaccination campaign a primary focus of his premiership as Covid-19 infections rise in the hard-hit country, raising fears that toughened restrictions will be needed to curb a new wave.
So far, Italy has administered roughly 8 shots per 100 people, close to the EU average and slightly behind Ireland’s rate.
Mr Draghi has appointed a new leadership to accelerate the drive by setting up 2,000 vaccination sites that aim to administer 56 million doses in a population of 60 million by the end of June.
The European Medicines Agency announced it had begun rolling review of trial data for Russia’s Sputnik vaccine on Thursday, the seventh Covid-19 vaccine to enter a process aimed to speed up potential regulatory approval. A decision on conditional marketing approval for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected next week.
AstraZeneca declined to comment.