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The Australian government will make urgent representations to the European Union after it threatened to block companies from exporting doses of the Covid-19 vaccine amid problems with AstraZeneca’s international supply chain.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, confirmed on Friday the government would approach both the World Health Organization and the EU to ensure “certainty” for Australia’s vaccine supplies after the European Commission threatened to impose export bans on companies manufacturing the shots.
It comes after AstraZeneca told EU officials last week it would cut deliveries of its vaccine by 60% in the first quarter due to production problems. It said the problems stemmed from a production factory in Belgium which is run by a partner company called Novasep.
The company had been expected to deliver about 80m doses to the EU by the end of March but waited until last week to inform the bloc that it would have to reduce that to 31m doses.
The disclosure prompted the Australian government to admit it would not receive as much of the drug as quickly as previously expected.
While the bulk of the country’s supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine is being produced domestically by CSL, Australia had been due to receive 3.8m doses from overseas in March. But this week Hunt conceded the government had now been forced to cut that back to 1.2m doses.
In response to the shortfall, European officials have also threatened to block other companies from exporting vaccines. That could impact the supply of Pfizer’s vaccine, currently the only company to have secured the approval of Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
This week Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said the EU “means business” on plans for tighter monitoring of vaccine exports to countries outside of the union.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum, von der Leyen said “companies must now deliver” on investments made by the EU, while Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, described the bloc’s plan as introducing an “export restriction” as well as a permit system to ensure the EU retained its fair share of vaccines produced on its territory.
That’s prompted a “please explain” from Australia to both the EU and the WHO.
“We understand the whole world has to deal with supply shocks and therefore our volumes have been appropriately set out this week,” Hunt said on Friday.
“But the foreign minister has confirmed today that Australia will be making representations through the World Health Organisation and through Europe, with regards to ensuring that the vaccine supplies and certainty for Australia.”
In response to the EU’s threat, Pfizer this week told a Senate hearing that it would consider shifting production of its vaccine to the United States in a bid to avoid any export ban.
“It’s obviously critical that governments don’t impose export restrictions or trade barriers,” Pfizer Australia and New Zealand medical director Krishan Thiru said.
“Should that happen we will explore what options are available. We have large scale of manufacturing across the US and Europe. No determination has been made at this point in time about switching the source of our manufacture of vaccinations.”
Adding to concerns about supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine was a report in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday which suggested the production issues the company had faced in Europe could be replicated in Australia, where partner company CSL is due to begin producing 50m doses of the vaccine from late March.
However, the company told the WSJ that despite producing lower than expected yields of the vaccine after starting production in November, it was currently on target to meet its commitments.
CSL faced criticism from parliamentarians this week after it failed to appear at a Senate hearing to explain its role in the $1.7bn AstraZeneca supply deal to a federal parliamentary inquiry, saying it was too busy.
After the no-show, independent Senator Rex Patrick blasted the company for being “disrespectful”, saying he had intended to ask the company about its readiness to manufacture the vaccine and whether it was on schedule.
“Their responses [to the committee] don’t make sense – which leads to the question: what have they got to hide?” he said.
Meanwhile, Hunt said on Friday that Australia’s TGA would make it own findings on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine after German authorities recommended the vaccine not be given to over 65s.
“With regard to the safety and effectiveness of that particular vaccine for over 65s, I understand that Prof Adam Field, the member of the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation in the United Kingdom, said they have no concerns about the safety of the vaccine in any age group,” the health minister said.
“So, countries will take different approaches. Our approach will be led by what we believe will be the best medical regulator in the world, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Australia in talks with WHO and Europe over ‘certainty’ of Covid vaccine supplies | Health