By Colin Packham
CANBERRA (Reuters) – The European Union on Tuesday denied blocking shipments of 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to Australia as it intensifies scrutiny of vaccine shipments to address EU shortages.
An Australian government source told Reuters that the EU had blocked 3.1 million shots and that the country had little hope of receiving the remaining 400,000 doses that had been promised on time.
The dispute underscores the massive shortage of AstraZeneca shooting across the EU bloc and complicates Australia’s vaccination campaign, which is already 83% behind its original schedule.
“We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or any other country,” a spokesman for the European Commission told a news conference.
A second spokesperson said the bloc had rejected only one of a total of 491 COVID-19 vaccine export requests since export transparency improved at the end of January, but added that seven requests were currently being reviewed and thus Meanwhile, shipments were on hold until a decision was made. done.
It declined to say whether a new shipment to Australia was among those being reviewed.
The only rejected application so far has been a shipment of 250,000 doses to Australia earlier this year. As of March 24, the EU had exported 1 million doses to Australia.
With vaccine launches 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 to countries with higher inoculation rates. . “They have blocked 3.1 million injections so far,” the Australian government source said, adding that he had only received 300,000 doses and another 400,000 doses were scheduled to arrive at the end of April.
“We have not lost hope, but we have stopped counting them in our expected supplies,” the source said. The person declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak about the matter.
Australia had only confirmed the EU’s 250,000-dose block of AstraZeneca as of Tuesday, which Canberra said at the time would not delay its inoculation schedule.
An EU official said it was not responsible for AstraZeneca’s failure to meet commitments to other countries, as the drugmaker aims to deliver only 100 million doses to the bloc by the end of June of the 300 million it had. promised.
AstraZeneca did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
It is unclear whether Australia plans to ask Britain or the United States to ship doses of AstraZeneca.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that the missing shipments were responsible for him not meeting his vaccination schedule. “At the beginning of January, we anticipated that we would have 3.1 million vaccines. Those vaccines were not supplied to Australia,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “That’s the reason.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine that arrived from Europe was the basis for the early stages of Australia’s vaccination campaign, supplementing 50 million injections of the vaccine to be produced locally by CSL Ltd.
But the latest supply blockages leave Australia struggling to speed up the pace of its vaccination campaign, which started much later than some other countries due to low numbers of cases.
Australia has recorded just 909 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began and said on Tuesday it would launch a COVID-proof and quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand this month after effectively eradicating the virus by closing borders last year.
Its vaccine program is now long overdue, with only about 670,000 people vaccinated against an initial target of 4 million at the end of March.
While the government blamed the slow launch of supply problems from Europe, Australian state governments have also complained of slower than expected distribution and a lack of certainty about supplies.
(Information from Colin Packham and Renju Jose; Additional information from Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Nick Macfie)