Italy has blocked a shipment of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine that was destined for Australia, in the first such intervention since the EU introduced new rules governing the shipment of vaccines outside the bloc.
Rome decided to prevent the export of 250,000 doses of the vaccine, officials said, as it moves to keep doses inside the union.
Italy notified Brussels of its proposed decision at the end of last week under the EU’s vaccine export transparency regime. The commission had the power to object to the Italian decision and did not, officials said.
The move threatens to heighten global tensions over vaccine procurement after EU allies objected to the introduction of its export regime. Under the controversial system announced by the European Commission at the end of January, EU-based vaccine manufacturers must seek authorisation from their national government where their Covid-19 vaccine is produced before exporting it out of the EU.
The scheme was part of Brussels’ response to an admission by AstraZeneca that it would miss targets for vaccine delivery to the EU, stoking EU suspicions that production had been shipped elsewhere.
Mario Draghi, the new Italian prime minister, questioned why the EU was not imposing stricter vaccine export controls at a summit of EU leaders last month.
AstraZeneca declined to comment, as did the commission.
The Italian government declined to comment. One Italian official said that decisions on permitting or blocking exports of vaccines were not made unilaterally and that the commission was involved.
Draghi has said that speeding up Italy’s vaccination drive will be the focal point of the first months of his premiership.
Earlier this week, the Italian government announced new targets to administer 56m vaccine doses by June. As of March 2, the country had vaccinated 4.6m people.
As part of this drive, Draghi has also replaced the two top figures in charge of the programme under the country’s previous government.
This week, he appointed Italian army general Francesco Paolo Figliuolo as the country’s new Covid-19 emergency commissioner, replacing Domenico Arcuri. The prime minister also appointed a new head of Italy’s civil protection agency.