A diplomatic dispute between the Australian government and the European Union over vaccine access has worsened, with Canberra accusing Brussels of “arguing semantics” and signalling it would block other export applications.
The Morrison government has also complained that the European Commission has not responded to Australia’s request for 1m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be made available to Papua New Guinea, one of the countries hardest hit in the region.
The latest statement follows comments by a European Commission spokesman on Tuesday that the only export request rejected out of nearly 500 received has been a shipment of 250,000 doses to Australia in March.
The Morrison government is under intense domestic pressure over its failure to meet initial targets for the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
The government contends the European Commission is “arguing semantics” by saying just one shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses has been formally blocked.
An Australian government spokesperson said AstraZeneca had “not been able to secure an export licence from Europe to send the remaining doses, and they know they would never be approved by the European Commission”.
“The EC itself has confirmed their export control regime has blocked the export of a number of those doses, including a shipment of 250,000 doses, and they also requested we withdraw other export permit applications,” the spokesperson said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Of the 3.8m AZ doses Australia has pre-purchased from overseas supplies, only 700,000 have been delivered to date, with the government continuing to seek access to 3.1m manufactured in the EU.”
The Australian government said it had been anticipating that AstraZeneca “would be able to supply us with 3.8m doses of their vaccine in the early stages of our rollout from the EU”.
But the Australian government spokesperson said the EC had been “absolutely clear in their public and private statements that no further doses of AZ are to be released until they have had their own orders fulfilled”.
“On 17 March, Australia requested 1m doses of our contracted supply to help support PNG respond to their outbreak. The EU still has not responded to that request,” the spokesperson said.
“If the EC has changed their approach to standing in the way of Australia’s vaccine deliveries, we welcome it and look forward to receiving our contracted doses, and the 1m humanitarian doses we want to get to PNG.”
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, told ABC TV: “So the fact that they’re not giving approval is effectively the same as blocking.”
The trade minister, Dan Tehan, conducted a round of interviews on Wednesday morning, saying the EU’s export control measures had “stopped or prevented AstraZeneca, for instance, putting in applications to be able to send the vaccine here to Australia”.
Tehan told the ABC the EU now seemed to be saying it would not block any future shipments, which would be a “wonderful” development.
He said he hoped that assurance meant that “there’s 1m vaccines hopefully on their way to PNG sooner rather than later and also all the other contracts that we have with AstraZeneca will now be able to be honoured and AstraZeneca will be able to send those to Australia”.
The Australian government has been under fire for the slow pace of the rollout and a lack of transparency about how many doses have been manufactured locally and administered.
Morrison said on Tuesday the vaccine supply issues were to blame for the massive discrepancy between the 855,000 vaccinations administered so far and the missed target of 4m doses by the end of March.
But on 5 March, after Italy blocked 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, was keen to downplay the impact of overseas supply issues on the rollout.
Hunt said at the time Australia’s “forward projections did not involve this particular shipment of one set of doses from one country, from a firm which has a deep, broad global supply chain”.
The opposition health spokesperson, Mark Butler, said on Tuesday the rollout was “so far behind every single commitment Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt has given to the Australian people”.
“Surely, they must admit this is not going well,” Butler told reporters. “They have to admit that, get people around the table and adjust their strategy.”