Australia calls for release of 3.1 million vaccine doses, if EU not blocking exports

CANBERRA (Reuters) -Australia said on Wednesday it will ask the European Union to release more than 3 million doses of AstraZeneca PLC’s COVID-19 vaccine, testing Brussel’s claim it is not blocking shipments, as the country struggles to vaccinate its population.

The European Union on Tuesday denied blocking vaccine shipments to Australia, which has fallen dramatically behind in its scheduled vaccination programme. The EU said it was not responsible for AstraZeneca’s failure to uphold commitments to other countries.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was asked by the EU to withdraw export permit applications and letters requesting supplies have gone unanswered.

Morrison said if the EU was now indicating its willingness to release shipments, he would again ask for the 3.1 million doses to be released. The 3.1 million doses were scheduled to arrive in Australia by the end of March.

“We obviously want those millions of doses,” Morrison told reporters in the capital Canberra.

“Given statements made overnight, that apparently there is no obstruction to that and then I would hope that could be readily addressed.”

Morrison said that if the EU permits the exports, Australia will donate 1 million doses to Papua New Guinea, which is struggling to cope amid soaring case numbers.

Last month the EU, at Italy’s request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.

It later denied Australia’s request to review the blockage, the first such refusal since Brussels established a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows in late January.

The vaccine dispute between Australia and the EU underscores massive shortfalls of the AstraZeneca shot across the EU and the impact of any vaccine export curbs on countries that had pre-ordered doses.

The Australian government has blamed the delay of the 3.1 million AstraZeneca doses for it falling behind in its own vaccination programme.

Australia received an initial shipment of 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in late February, which it said was the last received. It has also imported doses of Pfizer Inc’s vaccine.

The AstraZeneca vaccine arriving from Europe was to underpin the early stages of Australia’s vaccine drive, supplementing 50 million shots of the vaccine that will be produced locally by CSL Ltd.

Australia has recorded just XX cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, a small number compared to most nations, and has now eradicated the virus from the community. Small outbreaks only result from leakages from quarantined returned travellers.

But its inoculation programme is running behind schedule with only about 670,000 people vaccinated against an initial target of 4 million by March-end.

AstraZeneca did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.