ROME, Italy: In the first such ban since the European Union (EU) introduced rules on COVID vaccine shipments outside the bloc, Italy has prevented the export of a shipment of 250,700 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia, citing a continued scarcity of vaccines in Europe and Italy, and supply delays from the drugmaker.
The Italian foreign ministry also said it sought the export curb, as Australia is considered a "non vulnerable" country.
Italy notified the European Commission of its decision, taken under the EU's controversial export transparency mechanism, which allows vaccine exports to be blocked if drugmakers fail to meet delivery targets within the bloc.
The commission did not object to Italy's decision, according to an EU official quoted by Bloomberg. AstraZeneca declined comment.
Italy is the first nation to stop the export of vaccines, while over 170 requests have been authorized, according to an EU diplomat.
The shipment ban has come soon after Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi asked EU nations to adopt a tougher approach against drugmakers who fail to respect delivery commitments.
It could also fuel global tensions over vaccine procurements by encouraging other governments to retaliate with protectionist measures.
The EU's export controls, which were introduced after AstraZeneca said it would be unable to meet its vaccine delivery target in the bloc, could also pose a challenge for drugmakers who have several manufacturing sites in the bloc that supply to countries outside it or need to send vaccines outside the bloc for completion.
Responding to news of Italy's export curb, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, "They're certainly responsible for exercising the veto right they had through the EU process about those supplies coming to Australia."
"It's important the contracts are honored," he added, as reported by Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, Australia health minister Greg Hunt said Italy's move, which comes at a time when nations are scrambling to secure vaccines, masks, and ventilators, is a reflection of "arguably the most intensely competitive international environment since, perhaps, the Second World War".
Australia, which has reported just 29,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, is scheduled to begin domestic production of the AstraZeneca vaccine from late March and is targeting to produce 1 million doses per week.
The EU has so far vaccinated just over 8 percent of its population, compared to 32.3 percent and 24.3 percent in the U.K. and the U.S., according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker.