By Colin Packham
CANBERRA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Tuesday denied blocking shipments of 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to Australia, as the bloc steps up scrutiny of vaccine exports to address shortages.
An Australian government source told Reuters that the EU had blocked 3.1 million shots and the country had little hope of getting the remaining 400,000 doses it has been promised on time.
The dispute underscores massive shortfalls of the AstraZeneca shot across the EU and complicates Australia’s inoculation campaign, which is more than 80% behind its original schedule.
“We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or to any other country,” a European Commission spokesman told a news conference.
A Commission spokeswoman said the bloc had rejected only one of 491 COVID-19 vaccine export requests since it enhanced export transparency in late January, but added that seven requests were currently being reviewed – and therefore shipments were on hold until a decision was made.
She declined to say whether a new shipment to Australia was among those being reviewed. But an EU official said there was no request for export to Australia under review.
The only rejected request out of nearly 500 received has been so far a shipment of 250,000 doses to Australia in March. From Jan 30 to March 24, the EU exported 1 million doses to Australia, the Commission said in a press release.
The EU has repeatedly said that AstraZeneca may not be allowed to export from the EU until it fulfils its contractual obligations towards the bloc, a position that has led the company to refrain from submitting some export requests.
AstraZeneca did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.
With inoculation rollouts running far behind those of Britain and the United States, the EU tightened its oversight of vaccine exports last month, giving it greater scope to block shipments. “They’ve blocked 3.1 million shots so far,” said the Australian government source, adding that it had only received 300,000 doses and a further 400,000 doses were scheduled to arrive by the end of April.
“We haven’t given up hope but we’ve stopped counting them in our expected supplies,” the source said. The person declined to be named because he is not authorized to talk about the matter.
WELL BEHIND SCHEDULE
Australia had until Tuesday only confirmed the block of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses from the EU, which Canberra said then would not delay its inoculation timetable.
An EU official said it was not responsible for AstraZeneca’s failure in upholding commitments to other countries. The drug maker aims to deliver only 100 million doses to the bloc by the end of June out of 300 million it had pledged.
It is unclear whether Australia plans to ask Britain or the United States to ship AstraZeneca doses.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday the missing shipments were responsible for it not meeting its inoculation schedule. “In early January, we anticipated we would have the 3.1 million vaccines. Those vaccines were not supplied to Australia,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “That is the reason.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine arriving from Europe were to underpin the early stages of Australia’s vaccine drive, supplementing 50 million shots of the vaccine that will be produced locally by CSL Ltd.
Australia has recorded just 909 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began and said on Tuesday it would launch a quarantine and COVID-testing free travel bubble with New Zealand this month after effectively eradicating the virus by closing borders last year.
Australia’s vaccine program is running well behind schedule, having started much later than some other countries due to the low case numbers, and the AstraZeneca blockages leave it struggling to step up the pace.
Only about 670,000 people have been inoculated against an initial target of 4 million by end-March.
While the government blamed the slow rollout for supply issues from Europe, Australian state governments have also complained about slower-than-expected distribution and a lack of certainty on supplies.
(Reporting by Colin Packham and Renju Jose; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Miyoung Kim, Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)