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Europe faces an uphill battle with Covid vaccines as Italy blocks AstraZeneca shipments

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Prepared syringes at the Brussels Expo Covid-19 vaccination center in Brussels, Belgium, on Friday March 5, 2021.

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LONDON – Europe’s launch of coronavirus vaccines has once again been in the spotlight after the Italian government blocked a shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia.

The EU has made an effort to spread Covid-19 shots across the 27-person region and is lagging behind other advanced economies in terms of the number of vaccinations per citizen. There have been complaints that regulators are too slow to approve vaccines, manufacturing and delivery issues, and bureaucratic issues that are hampering the process.

However, new questions were raised on Thursday when Italy became the first EU country to apply the bloc’s new rules that allow exports to be halted if necessary. The move stopped around 250,000 doses of the vaccine from its Anagni, Italy facility that was being shipped to Australia.

Europe’s vaccine launch “will be an uphill battle,” Daniel Gros, director of the think tank at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Belgium, told CNBC on Friday.

How the EU got here

At the end of January, the EU announced new rules that would allow European member states that manufacture coronavirus shots to ban their exports in the event that the pharmaceutical company concerned fails to comply with existing contracts with the bloc.

The EU and AstraZeneca were at odds with the drugmaker unable to fire as many shots as the bloc expected for the first quarter. There were also doubts about how many shots the company will deliver in the second quarter.

The EU is being toasted for what the US is doing in a more radical form.

Daniel Gros

Director of CEPS

Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca, said late last month that the vaccine shortage was due to yield issues and that his company was working around the clock to increase production.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Friday morning that France could repeat Italy’s step. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn said there had been no reason to stop shipping vaccines made in Germany to other countries, according to Reuters.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said last month that around 95% of EU vaccines exported since late January were made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, as both companies respected their agreement with the EU.

At the time, she also said the US and UK had systems in place to block exports of these vaccines.

Europe is being “roasted” for what others are doing too

“The EU is being roasted for something that the US is doing in a more radical form,” said Gros from the CEPS.

“The amount was tiny. But as always, people jump on symbols. The US doesn’t have the problem of having to stop vaccines at the border because no one would think of exporting anything from the US,” he added.

In an executive order in early December, then-President Donald Trump ordered that the US should only export vaccines made in the country once it was determined that there were sufficient doses to vaccinate the American population.

“Now that it is determined that there is adequate supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses for all Americans who choose to vaccinate, allies, partners and others may need to facilitate international access to COVID-19 vaccines for the US government and in accordance with applicable law, “says the regulation.

Delivery to Australia has been blocked as the country is not on the EU’s list of nations at risk. The EU regulation exempts distribution to poorer nations from being blocked by the member states.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a news conference Friday that the country’s vaccination program would “continue unabated”, adding that the broadcast in question was not what they had anticipated for the rollout.

Australia has reportedly asked the European Commission to review Italy’s decision to block the broadcast. However, Morrison admitted that he understood why there would be high levels of concern in Italy and across Europe.

“We should not forget that the EU is providing vaccines for the south of the world and at the same time preventing this delivery to Australia,” Alberto Alemanno, professor of European law at HEC Paris, told CNBC on Friday.

He added that “the EU export control regulation embodies the EU’s legitimate attempt to gain some sovereign autonomy”.

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Katherine Clark