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AstraZeneca denies stockpiling after inspectors find 29 million doses in Italy

AstraZeneca on Wednesday denied reports it was stockpiling Covid-19 vaccines in the EU to export to Britain, after Italian inspectors found 29 million doses in a manufacturing plant near Rome.

AstraZeneca denies stockpiling after inspectors find 29 million doses in Italy
Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP

Following an inspection of pharmaceutical firm Catalent’s factory in Anagni in central Italy, officials found a large stash of the vaccine. The discovery was first reported by Italian newspaper La Stampa, which alleged that the doses were destined for the UK.

But AstraZeneca said 16 million doses were destined for the EU and the other 13 million for the Covax programme, which supports poorer countries and has Brussels’ support.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Do you need a health card to get vaccinated in Italy?

“There are no exports currently planned other than to Covax countries,” an AstraZeneca spokesperson said.

The doses destined for Europe were waiting for inspection before being dispatched, and were expected to be delivered by the end of April.

The discovery fuelled concerns in Brussels that the firm was not being transparent about its production, and came on the same day the bloc tightened its export control mechanism amid a row with the UK over supplies.

European capitals are irritated that the UK-based company managed to supply its British commitment smoothly, while falling far short of its promised deliveries to the EU.

Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP

A British government source denied that any of the Anagni doses were expected in the UK, and an Italian government official said they appeared to be destined for Belgium, a hub of vaccine production and distribution.

The Italian plant performs “fill and finish”, the process of putting vaccines produced elsewhere into vials and properly packaging them.

“We suspected that AstraZeneca had more production capacity in Europe than they had accounted for,” a European official told AFP, adding that industry commissioner Thierry Breton had asked Italy to investigate.

The official said the EU would now check where the vaccines were set to be delivered to, and whether they were originally produced in plants authorised by the European Medicines Agency.

READ ALSO: ‘A disaster’: Italy scrambles to tackle vaccine delays

The reports come as the EU said it would bolster rules on Covid-19 vaccine exports, making authorisations contingent on destination countries behaving fairly in return.

EU officials said the scheme is not a “vaccine export ban” and does not target any country in particular — though they called out AstraZeneca for falling far short on its deliveries to Europe.

The doses were initially found on Saturday after the European Commission asked Prime Minister Mario Draghi to inspect the batch, the Italian PM’s office said in a statement. Draghi later informed the health minister, Roberto Speranza, who ordered a police inspection.

AstraZeneca said it was “incorrect” to describe the batch as a stockpile and instead were waiting to go through quality control before being dispatched.

EU trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, said on Wednesday that Astra Zeneca was falling short of delivering even a quarter of the 120 million doses that the company aimed to provide the European bloc by the end of March.

“They are promising to be able to deliver 30 million doses but they are not even close to this figure as of today,” he told reporters.

READ ALSO: Italy says leftover vaccines should be given to ‘whoever is available’

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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