Ursula von der Leyen lashes out at UK and US in desperate bid to justify EU vaccine block

EU vaccine rollout shortcomings addressed by von der Leyen

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The EU executive backed Italy’s decision to block a shipment of 250,000 vaccine doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, in the first refusal of an export request since a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows was established in late January.

The move was a reaction to AstraZeneca’s delays in delivering vaccines to the EU. The company has said it can supply only about 40 million doses by the end of this month compared to 90 million foreseen in its contract.

In a bid to justify the decision, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hit out at Britain and the US, claiming the two nations have a mechanism to effectively block vaccine exports.

Mrs von der Leyen argued that the EU was still allowing exports of Covid vaccines overall, mostly from Pfizer and Moderna.

She told a news conference on Thursday that approximately 95 percent of EU-made vaccines that had been exported since January 30 were manufactured by Pfizer and BionTech, and the remainder by Moderna.

She said that both were honouring their supply contracts with the EU and therefore there was no limitation on their export, while on AstraZeneca’s exports the EU was keeping “a very close eye” because of the company’s shortfalls in deliveries to the 27-nation bloc.

US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order upholding the ban on exporting vaccines decreed by Donald Trump, and announced that 100 million Americans will be inoculated within his first 100 days in office.

The move is forcing neighbouring states like Mexico and Canada to wait on the EU for vaccine supplies.

The UK, whilst not explicitly banning exports of Covid vaccines, has placed a series of export restrictions last year on around 100 medicines that could be used to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as flu vaccines, which while not directly used to treat COVID-19, are considered a critical public health tool in combating the virus.

Australia has asked the Commission and Italy to review their decision.

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One official said the Anglo-Swedish firm had initially asked Rome to ship even more doses to Australia, but then cut its request to 250,000 after a first refusal by Italy, where some of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines are bottled.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne: “Australia has raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels, and in particular we have asked the European Commission to review this decision.”

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said on Friday that the EU executive had received no specific request from Australia’s health minister on the vaccine block.

Mr Hunt said Australia, which began its inoculation programme two weeks ago, had already received 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which would last until local production of the vaccine ramps up. He added the missing doses would not affect the rollout of Australia’s inoculation programme.

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When asked about the EU’s export ban, Japan vaccine minister Taro Kono said: “We are asking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to thoroughly investigate. We want to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure the vaccines bound for Japan.”

Apart from the decision to block the shipment to Australia, the EU has authorised all requests for export since the scheme’s Jan. 30 debut to March 1, which amounted to 174 requests for millions of shots to 29 countries, including Australia, Japan, Britain, the United Arab Emirates and Canada, an EU Commission spokeswoman said.

The EU is now planning to extend its scheme to monitor vaccine exports until the end of June after it expires on March 31.

When asked about Italy’s move, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that Paris could do the same, although at the moment it produces no COVID-19 vaccines.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that drug manufacturers must honour vaccine supply contracts to Europe, but said Germany had not yet had any reason to stop shipments of shots produced domestically to other countries.

While seeking the European Commission’s intervention, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he could understand the reasons for Italy’s objection.

He said: “In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe.”

Italy’s move came just days after Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office last month, told fellow EU leaders that 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 rich nations, including former member Britain and the United States.

Officials blame the slow progress in part on supply problems with manufacturers.

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