Australia's vaccine rollout is facing another hiccup after the European Commission and Italy blocked one of its shipments of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
Two sources said AstraZeneca had requested permission from the Italian government to export some 250,000 doses from its Anagni plant, near Rome, however because it had failed to meet its EU contract commitments, its shipment to Australia was blocked, Reuters reported.
The Italian government refused the shipment and the European Commission supported its decision, the sources said. An EU source in Brussels said national authorities had the final say in such matters.
There was no immediate comment from AstraZeneca.
While the doses are a small percentage of the more than 50 million AstraZeneca doses acquired by Australia, it is the latest setback for a vaccine rollout that has already fallen behind schedule nationwide, while a series of bungles administering the vaccine have caused notable embarrassment.
On Tuesday, Health Minister Greg Hunt had announced close to 300,000 doses of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines would be made available in the next 10 days.
However Mr Hunt has repeatedly insisted the rollout is on track to be completed by its initial target of October.
A Department of Health spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia the decision to block the shipment would not effect the rollout with production on Australian soil set to commence in just weeks.
"The first International Shipment of 300,000 doses already arrived which takes us through to the commencement of domestic CSL supplies," they said.
"Domestic production starts with one million per week of deliveries from late March and is on track."
European woes prompted 'total disgrace'
The move from Italy came just days after Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office last month, told fellow EU leaders the bloc needed to speed up vaccinations and crack down on pharma companies that failed to deliver on promised supplies.
EU countries started inoculations at the end of December, but are moving at a far slower pace than other nations, including Israel and ex-EU member Britain.
Officials have blamed the slow progress in part on supply problems with key manufacturers.
AstraZeneca in January cut its supplies to the EU in the first quarter to 40 million doses from 90 million foreseen in the contract, and later told EU states it would cut deliveries by another 50 per cent in the second quarter.
The company later said it was striving to supply missing doses for the second quarter from outside Europe.
Thursday's ban is believed to be the first time Europe has prevented vaccine exports to a third country.
Matthew Lesh, the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, labelled the move a "total disgrace".
“A very clear demonstration of closed, self-interested and nationalistic behaviour. The world should not tolerate this bullying," he said.
“Australia isn’t responsible for the European Union’s failure to secure enough doses or vaccinate across her population — Australia’s most vulnerable shouldn’t have to bear the consequences.”
The plant in Anagni is handling the final stage of the AstraZeneca production - the so-called fill and finishing of its Covid-19 vaccine.
The site is owned by US group Catalent that was expected to handle hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca doses over the coming 12 months.
The Anagni plant is also expected to help produce the vaccine developed by US drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.
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