Blocked vaccine shipment highlights importance of domestic production

Morgan Liotta

5/03/2021 1:17:34 PM

The stalled import could have affected the COVID vaccine rollout had Australia not secured local manufacturing capability.

Doctor holding vaccine vial with EU flag in it.
The EU has established new laws that allow member states to block export shipments of COVID-19 vaccines in order to protect domestic supply.

This story was updated at 3.10 pm Friday 5 March.

A disagreement between AstraZeneca and the European Union (EU) over ‘commitments to supply the vaccine’ has resulted in Italy blocking a shipment of 250,000 vaccine doses bound for Australia.
In a decision backed by the EU, the Italian Government blocked the shipment after AstraZeneca failed to meet delivery targets and instead indicated it could only supply 40 million doses in the first quarter of 2021 – less than 50% of the predicted 90 million.
The move was in part due to the low number of COVID-19 cases in Australia, which has no known community transmission, whereas Italy has registered on average more than 18,000 daily cases for the past week.
Despite the unexpected delay, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters Australia’s rollout will go ahead as planned, as the 300,0000 doses that arrived on Sunday will last until domestic supplies become available.
‘Domestic production starts with one million per week of deliveries from late March and is on track,’ Minister Hunt said.
Australia has a purchase agreement in place for 53.8 million doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, 50 million of which will be made locally, with the remaining 3.8 million due to be imported from overseas.
Infectious diseases physician and microbiologist Associate Professor Paul Griffin told newsGP that although the blocked shipment is disappointing, it highlights the importance of Australia having a domestic supply.
‘That was always part of our plan – to have one, or ideally even more than one, vaccine manufactured locally,’ he said.
‘There are so many factors that can impact the ability of getting vaccines from overseas, one of which is when there’s a decision like this made to prioritise local delivery.
‘But there are also many other factors at play here, so it certainly does highlight how important it is that we have one that can be manufactured locally, and especially to high volumes very soon.’

Department of Health Secretary Professor Brendan Murphy echoed that sentiment.

‘The value of having onshore production cannot be underestimated,’ he said.

‘Every country in the world is depending on international supplies. They’re seeing them come slowly.

‘We have been very lucky with Pfizer. They have kept their supply going, but it’s relatively small volumes, and that will keep going throughout the rest of this year, and that will be a very valuable vaccine.

‘But we’ll get a lot more of the AstraZeneca vaccine. That’s the one I’m going to have, and I’m really looking forward to it.’

The decision to block supply to Australia is the first time the EU has triggered new export controls brought in at the end of January which are designed to protect its own supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
However, it has added to existing concerns that vaccine nationalism could hinder global equitable access to the life-saving vaccines.
The World Health Organization has launched the COVAX initiative to combat the trend and mitigate the increasing risk of further spread of the virus, stating ‘no one is safe, unless everyone is safe’, with Australia jumping on board last year.
But Associate Professor Griffin warns that barriers to accessing the vaccine and disabling domestic manufacturing will still be a problem.
‘One of the things about this vaccine rollout more broadly is we need to look at the fair and equitable distribution of vaccines, and if countries do start preventing dissemination of product manufactured locally then that’s going to be a huge challenge,’ he said.
‘We are starting to see more and more issues with supply of consumables, for example, and ability to manufacture the vaccine.
‘I’d like to think these decisions don’t become common place and we look at the overall goal – which is having everyone vaccinated.’
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