Italy has blocked the export of 250,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia in an escalation of a row with the Anglo-Swedish company.
In the first such intervention under the EU’s controversial export authorisation scheme, the Italian government ordered that the doses remain in the bloc with the backing of the European commission.
The move will alarm those concerned that the EU is moving towards a protectionist approach to vaccine supply. The commission had repeatedly and publicly insisted that it did not intend to impose a ban.
The EU has been engaged in high-profile row with AstraZeneca after the company informed officials of a shortfall in deliveries this quarter due to a production problem in one of its EU sites.
A mechanism under which vaccine suppliers would need to gain authorisation for exports out of the EU was drawn up amid concerns that doses made within the bloc were being delivered to the UK.
The commission had insisted for weeks that the mechanism was primarily about transparency. But Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, had privately assured the 27 EU heads of state and government at a summit last week that exports would be prevented in cases where suppliers were not fulfilling their contractual obligations.
AstraZeneca has production sites in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Australia has purchased 53m doses from the company, which are due to be rolled out this month. The vaccine has the advantage of being able to be kept in normal refrigerated conditions rather than in freezers.
AstraZeneca had made deliveries to Italy last week that were about 10-15% lighter than expected. But the company had insisted it would respect its commitment to supply the country with 4.2m doses in the first quarter of the year.
The Italian government, under its new prime minister, Mario Draghi, formerly president of the European Central Bank, had nevertheless notified the commission at the end of the week of its intentions and received Brussels’ backing. He had voiced his concerns that the EU was not being stricter on exports during the leaders’ summit.
The EU has approved about 150 requests for the export of vaccines since it established its authorisation mechanism, with only Italy so far having rejected such a request.