Australian PM plays down Italy vaccine blockade

by Andrew BEATTY / AFP

SYDNEY – Australia’s prime minister on Friday played down the impact of Italy’s landmark decision to block the export of 250,000 Covid-19 vaccine doses due to be delivered.

Scott Morrison insisted the blocked shipment of the AstraZeneca jabs 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,” Morrison said.

Italy explained the export ban as necessary due to a shortage of vaccines in virus-hit Europe and the lack of urgent need in relatively virus-free Australia.

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.”

The European Commission has fiercely criticised AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company, for supplying just a fraction of the vaccine doses it had promised to deliver to the bloc.

Still, Italy’s export ban rekindled accusations of “vaccine nationalism”, something Morrison pushed back against pointing to the “large amount of vaccines” that have already left the European Union.

Australia has received 300,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses so far, and the first of them were administered on Friday to frontline staff.

That batch, along with supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, is expected to last until domestic production is scaled up at the end of the month.

Rival pharmaceutical company CSL is producing AstraZeneca’s vaccine in Australia after its own candidate did not successfully conclude trials.

In total, around 50 million doses are expected to be produced in Australia.

“Domestic production starts with one million (doses) per week of deliveries from late March and is on track,” a spokesperson for Australia’s health ministry told AFP.

Morrison said that capacity had given Australia “sovereignty over our vaccination program, which I think is incredibly important.”

Though Australia approved vaccines later than most countries, it aims to have the vast majority of the adult population inoculated by October this year.

The country of about 25 million people has seen more than 25,000 virus cases since the pandemic began and around 900 deaths.