The European Union (EU) has tightened the rules surrounding the vaccine exports coming out of Europe, which may impact Australia’s vaccine rollout plan.
Vaccine shortages have inflamed tensions between the EU and pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and AstraZeneca and ultimately resulted in the EU tightening restrictions on vaccine exports.
Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca have been contracted to deliver millions of doses to Australia from manufacturers in Europe.
The restrictions give EU citizens priority for those manufactures in the EU and ensure the pharmaceutical giants must seek approval first before sending doses abroad.
The measure essentially means all vaccine exports out of Europe are subject to authorisation by Member States.
Many poorer nations and close neighbours are exempt from the export controls.
“The objective of this measure is to ensure timely access to COVID-19 vaccines for all EU citizens and to tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU,” the European Commission said.
“It is not our intention to restrict exports any more than absolutely necessary, and the Union remains fully committed to international solidarity and its international obligations,” it added.
EU’s row with pharmaceutical companies
Pfizer temporarily slowed supplies in order to make way for manufacturing changes and AstraZeneca said it would cut supplies of its shot allocated to the EU in the first quarter due to production issues at a Belgian factory.
Despite Europe securing deals for vaccine supplies early on, many European countries are facing delays in shipments from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
AstraZeneca offered eight million more doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the EU to try to defuse a row over supplies, but the bloc says that's still far short of what was originally promised.
EU officials said that meant a 60 per cent cut to 31 million doses in the period to the end of March, a major blow for its 27-member countries which are already lagging behind vaccination campaigns in Israel, Britain and the US.
The world has now topped over 100 million Covid cases since the start of the pandemic, while Australia has gone 12 days without any community transmission.
Aussie rollout ‘on track’ as government looks for assurances
While the measures are meant to ensure EU citizens are prioritised, the deal could ultimately impact the rollout in Australia.
On Friday it was reported Australia will seek a guarantee from the EU that it won't block coronavirus vaccines from being exported amid soaring global demand.
Speaking on the ABC on Saturday morning, after the EU finalised the new measures, MP Darren Chester confirmed the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is talking with Foreign Minister Marise Payne to represent Australia's interest to the WHO to ensure the February planned vaccine rollout is still on track.
Mr Chester said said he believes Australia is still on track with “vulnerable” Australians expected the get the jab as early as February.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said Australians are “at the front of the queue” for vaccines, despite more than 60 countries already administering jabs.
“These supply shocks were not unexpected given the nature of the virus,” Mr Chester said.
“But I've had reassurances from colleagues and I understand Greg Hunt as minister is making all the responsible moves you need to make to ensure supply.”
The EU has granted exemptions more than 120 countries outside of the EU but Australia is not one of them.
Pfizer was set to begin shipping at least 80,000 doses per week from Belgium to Australia in February, and Australia is expected to receive 10 million-doses over the course of the year.
Australia meanwhile has downgraded its imports of the AstraZeneca vaccine from 3.8 million to 1.2 million doses amid the supply issues.
CSL will produce 50 million AstraZeneca doses in Melbourne during the course of the year with the first two million expected in late March.
Vaccine squabbles ‘will only prolong pandemic’: WHO
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against “rich” countries keeping Covid vaccines for themselves, saying doing so could prolong the pandemic.
“As we speak, these countries are rolling out vaccines to their citizens while the world's least developed countries watch and wait,” WHO director Tedros Ghebreyesus said.
“This not only leaves the world's most vulnerable people at risk, it is also short-sighted and self-defeating.
“It will only prolong the pandemic. The restrictions needed to contain it and human and economic suffering.”
Poorer countries face a best-case scenario of a six-to-eight month lag behind richer nations in getting access to Covid-19 vaccines, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said earlier this week.
The WHO previously said disadvantaged members of society need to be among the first to receive the vaccine against Covid-19.
The WHO said that health workers in high-risk settings and very old people should be vaccinated first followed by disadvantaged people who live in crowded conditions, other health workers, the elderly and teachers.
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