EXPLAINER

What does the AstraZeneca spat mean for Australia's vaccine program?

The global politics is getting nasty.

According to the authoritative Financial Times: "Italy has blocked a shipment of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that was destined for Australia, in the first intervention since the European Union introduced new rules over the shipment of vaccines outside the bloc.

"Rome stopped the export of 250,000 doses of the vaccine, officials said. Italy notified Brussels of its move at the end of last week under the EU's vaccine export transparency regime. The European Commission had the power to object to the Italian decision and did not, officials said."

Why?

The European Union, comprising 27 states, including Germany, France and Italy, has been embroiled in a dispute with AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company which, with researchers from Oxford University, developed the new vaccine.

In January, AstraZeneca said it wouldn't be able to deliver enough of its vaccine to EU countries because of production glitches at its plant in Belgium.

It was now aiming to supply 40 million doses, which was well short of the 100 million doses initially envisaged.

The European Union accused it of breaking a contract to supply a particular number of doses. AstraZeneca denied it had.

At the same time as the dispute over the small print of the contract, the EU's vaccination program was behind schedule.

In contrast, Britain's was going full speed ahead, using AstraZeneca vaccine (along with the Pfizer one). There did not seem to be a shortage in Britain.

Britain and the European Union have a testy relationship at the moment because Britain has just left the EU.

With the political heat rising, the EU ruled in January exports of vaccine had to be approved. Most exports had been approved but Italy objected to this particular batch for Australia.

Italy has a new prime minister, no doubt anxious to be seen as a man of action. In Italy (where politics is often fraught), the foreign ministry asked the European Commission to block the export of 250,700 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia.

Australia, in the Italian reasoning, was a "non-vulnerable" country.

But …

The European Union has been in disarray over vaccinations.

It signed its contract with AstraZeneca three months after Britain did. In Britain, the allegation was the EU got in late but now complained it hadn't got enough of the vaccine.

At the same time, there seemed to be reluctance by people in continental Europe to be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca jab. The uptake in the EU had been low.

This may be because the France President Emmanuel Macron cast doubt on it. He was reported as saying: "Everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older."

Experts said he got it wrong. The truth was the full results of trials were just not in yet because not enough testing had been done on older people, but there was actually no reason to think the vaccine wouldn't work with them.

Either way, the EU found itself in a contradictory situation: complaining it didn't have enough of the vaccine but also people reluctant to use it.

The result? Political pressure for governments as their citizens saw pictures on the news of British people being vaccinated and perhaps of Australians going about life as near-normal.

Does it matter?

Not much.

Australia's government has done a deal with AstraZeneca to produce its vaccine at the Melbourne plant of CSL, the highly-successful global biotech company which started life as the government's Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in 1916 to meet Australia's health needs when it was isolated by war.

In a resonant situation now, production of the AstraZeneca vaccine started even before the final trial results were approved by the regulator, but on the basis the research would come good (in contrast to the European Union's wait-and-see policy).

In addition to the AstraZeneca vaccine, Australians were already being vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said: "We are obviously disappointed and frustrated by this decision, but it is also why we took a belt and braces approach. We've contracted up to 150 million doses of vaccines, including 50 million doses to be produced in Australia. The world is in quite uncharted territory at present, it's unsurprising that some countries will tear up the rule book."

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said the Italian blockade was "not going to affect the rollout".

That rollout has started. A South Australian doctor was the first in the country to get the AstraZeneca jab.

"I'm a GP consultant who works in the emergency department," Dr Caroline Phegan told reporters.

"I often roll up my sleeves to help out when they need a hand and I think it's really important to be a part of of the rollout and the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope I reassure people it's a safe vaccine."

Wider concerns

The spat over the European Union's block on the export to Australia has raised fears of "vaccine nationalism" where each country fights for its own supply, with the poorest countries left behind. Until all populations were vaccinated, easy global travel would not resume.

Our new friend

It turns out the head of AstraZeneca is an Australian and lives on the north shore in Sydney.

Pascal Soriot seems every inch the Frenchman - but he holds dual citizenship: French (which means European Union) and Australian.

He first worked in Australia as a salesman for a French pharmaceutical company but he rose to become one of those global business leaders who in normal times would spend much of his life crossing time zones.

"I mean, it's my country, I wanted to make sure that people were well-covered here and were protected," he told a reporter.

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This story What does the AstraZeneca spat mean for Australia's vaccine program? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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