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March 5, 2021, 4:01 p.m. EST

Italy’s ban on AstraZeneca exports to Australia raises fears of vaccine nationalism

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By Pierre Briançon

Italy said on Thursday it would ban the export of some 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca–Oxford University vaccine destined for Australia, in the first use of new rules established by the European Union in January to better control the sourcing of doses within the bloc.

  • The new regulation came into force after a dispute between the EU and drug company AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN +0.62% , which had informed Brussels that it would only be able to deliver 31 million doses out of the 80 million originally contracted for the first quarter of the year.

  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he “ understood ” Italy’s decision, because the country is in an “unbridled crisis situation.” Canberra nevertheless is asking the European Commission to overturn the export ban.

  • Concerns in Europe about the AstraZeneca shot’s efficacy for the older population have resulted in several million doses still remaining unused in the EU.

  • Major European countries have been slow in rolling out the currently available vaccines, with only 8% of EU residents having received an injection in the two months since the campaigns started. That compares with 32% in the U.K. and 24% in the U.S.

Read: Vaccine nationalism: Germany suggests EU should restrict the export of Pfizer’s vaccine

The outlook: Australia is a country where the COVID-19 pandemic has all but disappeared, where vaccines are abundant and where AstraZeneca will soon start to manufacture its own shot. But France is already talking about taking similar measures, which, if widespread, could threaten global vaccine supply chains.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, according to several reports, wondered during a video summit of EU leaders last week why the EU didn’t have even stronger controls on vaccine exports, similar to the U.S. He has struck his first diplomatic coup by pioneering the use of the new rules.

Italy duly noted that it took the measure because Australia can be considered as a “nonvulnerable” country. But since Italy already had to submit its decision to the EU last week, it is unlikely Brussels will reverse course now.

Read: Recession takes hold in Europe as pandemic is on the rise in some regions

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