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VACCINE

Italy blocks export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia

Italy has blocked a shipment to Australia of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine under an EU export ban, amid a row over supply shortfalls.

Italy blocks export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia
Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Rome’s request to block the dispatch of the 250,000 doses was accepted by the European Commission on Thursday, in the first such use of an export ban under an EU vaccine monitoring scheme.

The move came amid an ongoing row between the EC and the pharmaceutical giant over a supply shortfall.

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The EC has fiercely criticised the Anglo-Swedish company this year for supplying just a fraction of the vaccine doses it had promised to deliver to the bloc.

Italy said the export ban was necessary due to a shortage of vaccines in Europe, where infections are currently rising again, and the lack of urgent need in relatively virus-free Australia.

Though the ban sparked accusations of “vaccine nationalism”, Australia’s prime minister on Friday pointed to the “large amount of vaccines” that have already left the European Union.

He insisted Italy’s request was understandable and would not affect Australia’s vaccine programme.

“This particular shipment was not one we’d counted on for the rollout, and so we will continue unabated,” PM Scott Morrison said.

The AstraZeneca vaccine up close. Photo: Fred SCHEIBER/AFP

Morrison expressed sympathy: “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.”

“They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia,” he added.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, also offered solidarity: “My sister lives in Italy. They’re at the moment having 18,000 cases a day.”

READ ALSO: Lockdowns and vaccine scepticism – how France and Italy are struggling to get Covid under control

The doses came from a plant in Italy operated by AstraZeneca to produce some of its vaccine, one of three authorised for use in the EU alongside the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna versions.

Under the commission’s “transparency and authorisation mechanism” EU member states vet planned exports out of the bloc of authorised Covid-19 vaccines.

The scheme started on January 30th and is to run until at least the end of March. That period corresponds to the sharp shortfall in the first three months of this year of deliveries the EU had been counting on to kickstart its vaccine roll-out.

AstraZeneca has pledged “best reasonable efforts” to deliver around 100 million doses in that time, but is now on track to supply just 40 percent of that.

The Italian government’s decision, agreed with Brussels, is unprecedented in Europe.

Now the seized lot will be redistributed within the EU. The move is allowed under the Export Control Mechanism, launched by the European Commission. But it is the first time it has been activated by a member state.

The Export Mechanism was introduced precisely to prevent doses of vaccines under contract destined for EU countries from being resold to other nations and exported outside the continent.

During a phone call with Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, had reiterated on Thursday that it was necessary to put “asphyxiating” pressure on Big Pharma to force them to respect the agreed deliveries. If necessary, by blocking the export of those who do not observe the contractual terms.

After becoming prime minister last month, Draghi unveiled a new plan for Italy to administer 56 million vaccine doses by June.

The country has vaccinated 4.6 million people so far, with 1.5 million receiving both doses.

Member comments

  1. Myself like many others here in Australia, would think Italy needs the vaccine more than us, don’t understand the drama around the blocking.

  2. Myself like many others here in Australia tend to think Italy needs the vaccine more than us, so don’t understand what all the drama is about.

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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