Italy blocked AstraZeneca for over-65s just before EU stopped Australia vaccine exports

EU: Expert slams Ursula von der Leyen on vaccine rollout

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Rome has just blocked the export of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia. This made Italy the first country to employ the EU’s new regulations, which allows member states to stop jab exports if the company providing the vaccine has not met its contractual obligations to the bloc. AstraZeneca is behind on its promised supplies of the vaccine to EU member states by 60 percent. The developer has blamed production problems for the delay.

Australia has clarified that while losing this one shipment will not cause a major problem for its vaccine rollout, it wants the European Commission to review this dramatic action which has caused a stir in the international community.

Neither the EU nor AstraZeneca have officially commented on Italy’s move, but it is seen as the latest saga in the bloc’s flawed approach to its vaccine rollout.

Indeed, Italy was actually one of the European countries who publicly spoke out against the AstraZeneca vaccine just last month.

Officials claimed there was “insufficient data” from the UK-based company that its vaccine would protect over-65s against COVID-19.

Instead, it said it would only use the jab on healthy individuals between 18 and 65, as the Italian government said there was more “solid” evidence it would be effective for this category.

Rome claimed it would use the Pfizer vaccine, or “mRNA-based” jabs like the Moderna vaccine on more vulnerable individuals.

In February, the Italian Medicine Agency claimed: “In terms of percentage reduction in the frequency of symptomatic infections, the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine is lower than that of mRNA vaccines.”

Italy was not alone in this decision — Spain, too, announced the AstraZeneca vaccine would only be used for over-55s.

Germany also said in January it recommended blocking the same jab for over-65s in the absence of sufficient data.

However, as the EU had already been accused of a sluggish rollout, this ruling from some of its key member states seemed particularly surprising.

At the time, less than four percent of EU citizens had been immunised, in comparison to approximately 20 percent in the UK — where the AstraZeneca jab had been approved for over-65s.

Just weeks before, the then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also dubbed the delays from AstraZeneca and US developer, Pfizer, “unacceptable” — while accusing the firms of violating their contracts.

Rome’s approach towards the AstraZeneca vaccine only appeared more inconsistent when, on Friday, Italy’s health minister asked to verify if it was possible to extend the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to those over 65.

Rome has also justified its latest action against AstraZeneca by saying Australia was not on the list of “vulnerable” countries.

Italy and the EU, on the other hand, have struggled with a slow vaccine rollout and a staggering death toll.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison even said that he could understand why Italy had acted as it did, despite asking for a review from the EU.

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He noted: “In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300-a-day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe.”

Our World in Data shows there have been 909 deaths in Australia related to a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Even so, Italy’s actions towards AstraZeneca’s exports have prompted some surprise.

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The President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said it was “disappointing to see this vaccine nationalism rearing its head” after Italy’s latest actions.

The BBC’s Rome correspondent Mark Lowen also noted: “It is the first such ban under a new EU scheme in which manufacturers must request authorisation for export from the country in which the vaccine is produced.

“Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Draghi, an influential figure in Europe as the former President of the European Central Bank, argued in a video-conference with EU leaders that the rules should be applied rigorously, furious at reductions by AstraZeneca of up to 70 percent in the doses it was contracted to provide.”

He added Mr Draghi is “clearly determined to show that his country— and the EU — will use all means necessary” to ramp up the vaccine programme.

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