The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is linked to rare blood clots. Photo: Russell Cheyne/AFP

Under fire for its failure to procure enough coronavirus vaccines for the European Union’s 450 million citizens, the European Commission this week approved Italy’s request to block the export of a relative handful of drugs to Australia. The decision set off a storm of controversy.

The drugs in question – 250,000 doses from the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – were to be exported to Australia from one of the company’s Italian factories. The move to block exports was in retaliation after AstraZeneca reneged on its pledge to supply 100 million doses to EU countries this spring. Instead, it will deliver 40 million.

But the contract signed between AstraZeneca and the EU said that the company would make its “best efforts” to meet its obligations, giving it legal room to delay deliveries if necessary. Stopping a shipment to Australia seems more like a fit of temper than a solution to the continent’s vaccine rollout problems.

Europe is facing a shortage of vaccines due to late and insufficient orders placed in 2020 by the European Commission, headed by President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU didn’t place concrete orders for any vaccines until mid-November and ordered far less than it could have.

It only secured 200 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, with an option for 100 million more that would be manufactured later. According to Der Spiegel magazine, BioNTech had additional production capacity and offered up to 500 million doses in the first round, but the offer was not accepted.

The numbers paled in comparison with orders by the United States, which secured 600 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 500 million from Moderna.

Criticism of the EU move first came from Australia, which asked the Commission to review the decision to block the export. “The world is in uncharted territory at present. It’s unsurprising that some countries would tear up the rulebook,” said Simon Birmingham, Australia’s finance minister.

A spokesman for the EU Commission answered drily that, “Progress needs to be made on the deliveries to EU countries.”

Even in Europe, some were taken aback. Germany, a firm believer in global trade, cautioned that a policy of limiting exports could boomerang if countries that produced ingredients for making vaccines followed suit.

“With a measure like that, in the short term there’s a win, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t cause us problems in the medium term by disrupting the supply chains for vaccines and everything that’s needed in terms of precursors,” said Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister

In London, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led his country out of the EU last year, criticized the decision for endangering “global efforts to fight the virus.”  The World Health Organization (WHO) has already warned that previous threats by the EU to block exports could lead to vaccine trade wars.

Germany, Europe’s biggest country, has so far vaccinated no more than 8% of its population; France, just over 7%. By contrast, the UK has given at least one shot each to a third of its people while the United States has inoculated a quarter of its population.

Italy has vaccinated about 8% of its 60 million population. It only this week lowered the age threshold for recipients to receive a shot from 80 to 78. It has, in a controversial measure, placed police, soldiers and teachers at the front of the line, leaving fewer doses for older, more vulnerable people.

People between the ages of 70 and 79, presumably among the most vulnerable, have received only 170,000 doses; people between 50 and 59, more than a million.

Italy has prioritized police, soldiers and teachers, leaving fewer vaccine doses for older, more vulnerable people. Artur Widak/NurPhoto/AFP

There is, in fact, no vaccine shortage in Italy at the moment. In the case of AstraZeneca vaccines, Italy has received 1.5 million doses but has administered only 350,000. In general, the pace of injections has been woefully slow and they have been oddly distributed.

In any case, the 250,000 doses will make little difference for Italy. Though produced in the country, the drugs must be divided among the EU’s 27 members. The incident also makes little difference to Australia, whose coronavirus caseload is low. It is just now undertaking its vaccination campaign.

But it does make Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi look like he’s doing something. He was appointed last month as an unelected technocratic prime minister to fix Italy’s coronavirus problems and the economy.

On Wednesday, he phoned von der Leyen and said the EU must “suffocate” big pharmaceutical companies to squeeze them for more supplies, the newspaper La Repubblica reported.

Draghi seems to realize that relying on token measures like blocking shipment to Australia will not be enough. His government is in talks with Russian producers of the Sputnik V vaccine – which has yet to win EU regulatory approval – to make the drug in Italy.

Hungary is already vaccinating its citizens with Sputnik V – and with China’s Sinopharm, which is also yet to be approved by the EU. Czechia has also ordered some vaccines from China. Meanwhile, France said it might join Italy in blocking vaccine exports.

For the EU, which pressured members to let it handle vaccine procurement, the shortfalls are not only a public health fiasco but also a stain on its self-declared image as a transnational bloc better equipped to solve big problems than individual states.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.