Italy blocks export of covid-19 vaccines to Australia

Rome halts export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia in unprecedented move within EU.

Italy has blocked the export of around 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine to Australia after the drug manufacturer failed to meet its European Union (EU) contract commitments.

The move by Italy, unprecedented in the EU, was made in line with a new European mechanism on export controls, and was taken with the support of the European Commission.

The mechanism was introduced in January amid a row with AstraZeneca after the pharmaceutical company said it would deliver fewer vaccines than planned to the EU.

The decision by Rome was also taken in light of the fact that Australia is "not a vulnerable country," reports Italian news agency ANSA.

In January AstraZeneca reduced its supplies to the EU in the first quarter to 40 million doses, down from 90 million envisaged in the contract, and later told EU states it would cut deliveries by a further 50 per cent in the second quarter, Reuters reports.

The Australian government today expressed "frustration" at Italy’s decision but stressed it would not affect the roll-out of Australia’s inoculation programme, according to Reuters.

"It’s unsurprising that some countries would tear up the rule book” - Australian finance minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News - “This is a demonstration of really how well Australia continues to do compared to the desperation of other countries.”

The move came just days after Italy's new premier Mario Draghi called on the EU to speed up vaccinations and get tough with 'Big Pharma' companies that failed to respect the agreed deliveries of vaccines.

In addition to voicing his concern about the sluggish pace of the vaccine roll-out, Draghi called for EU-produced vaccines to remain within the bloc.

Earlier this week Italy issued a new emergency decree extending coronavirus restrictions until 6 April, the day after Easter Monday, amid growing concerns over the spread of highly contagious virus variants.

The new decree came after Draghi fired Italy's covid-19 emergency commissioner Domenico Arcuri, who faced criticism for the pace of the vaccination campaign, replacing him with army general and logistics expert Francesco Paolo Figliuolo.

Italian industry minister Giancarlo Giorgetti recently met with representatives of the country's pharmaceutical industry to discuss producing 'bulk drug substance,' the active ingredient of covid-19 vaccines, in Italy "in four - six months."

More than 4.8 million covid vaccinations have been administered so far in Italy, the health minister Roberto Speranza announced yesterday, with over 1.5 million Italians receiving their second dose.

Italy’s medicines regulator AIFA approved the AstraZeneca vaccine on 30 January, a day after its approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

AstraZeneca is the third vaccine approved for use in the EU after those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.