‘Someone Had to Go First’: Europe Kickstarts Vaccine Nationalism War

Remo Casilli via Reuters
Remo Casilli via Reuters

ROME—Hours after Italy’s newly-minted prime minister Mario Draghi kickstarted a bout of vaccine nationalism by blocking the export of vaccines made in the Eurozone, several other European countries were threatening to follow suit.

Speaking on French television station BFM Friday morning, France’s health minister Olivier Véran applauded Italy’s move to keep vaccines made in Europe at home and threatened to do likewise. “We could do the same,” he said. “The more doses France has, the happier I will be as health minister. France has the right to talk to its European neighbors to ensure that laboratories respect their commitments and contracts. That seems to me to be common sense.”

A spokesperson for the health ministry of Spain, which has several facilities crucial to the global vaccine supply chain, also suggested Friday that they will look at where the vaccines produced in that country are going.

Europe is the world’s largest producer of vaccine components, and all three of the main COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca) currently in use rely on companies to fill vials and distribute the vaccines both in the Eurozone and outside, mostly to Canada, Japan, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. Facilities in Italy, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands are all crucial links in the global supply chain and could all block export under regulations put in place in the EU on January 30.

Italy’s first tactical move of denying an export request for 250,000 AstraZeneca doses produced in Italy en route to Australia marks a new front line in a vaccine war that pits big pharma against state-run health systems. The European Commission approved the block, signaling it would do so if other countries followed suit to keep more vaccine doses in Europe. A source in Draghi’s government told The Daily Beast that Italy had been given assurances that the European Commission would back Italy up. “Someone had to go first,” the source, speaking on condition of anonymity said. “But Italy will not be the only country to protect its citizens this way.”

According to a readout of a call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Draghi justified his actions, saying he “hoped to suffocate the drug companies” to pressure them to meet their EU commitments to deliver vaccines.

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In a statement to journalists, Italy’s foreign ministry explained it had blocked vials that were being prepped at the New Jersey-based drug company Catalent’s plant in the Roman municipality of Anagni, citing delays in the distribution within Italy and the rest of the EU. The statement also cited a discrepancy in “the high number of vaccine doses requested for export... compared to the amount of doses provided to Italy and, more generally, to EU countries so far.”

Catalent produces around 1 million Moderna doses a day, according to a company spokesperson. Currently, most of those are distributed inside the Eurozone, but the Italian foreign ministry also has to approve any foreign exports of that vaccine as well.

The ministry also said the doses were heading to Australia where they would be distributed to people the EU classifies as “not vulnerable” under current regulations while robbing those who are vulnerable in Italy and the EU of protection against the deadly virus. Australia, with a population of 25 million, has logged around 25,000 COVID-19 cases and 900 deaths. Italy, by contrast, has a population of 60 million people and has logged nearly 3 million cases and 99,000 deaths so far. On Thursday, Italy recorded 22,865 new infections while Australia had less than a dozen.

The European Commission set up the framework for blocking exports of COVID-19 vaccines produced in Europe on January 30, as the vaccine battle that has largely targeted the British-made AstraZeneca vaccine heated up. The EU regulation makes it compulsory for vaccine makers to get authorization from the countries where the vaccines are physically produced before exporting them.

Because of Brexit, the U.K. no longer enjoys automatic trade relationships with the EU and has thus contracted various Europe-based vaccine makers to help produce the AstraZeneca vaccines sold to European countries. But the British company has fallen short of its promised deliveries and will deliver just 40 million of the 100 million first doses ordered by the EU by the end of March, a move that has drastically compromised vaccine rollouts across Europe, risking a third deadly wave of the pandemic.

The EU has vaccinated just over 5 percent of its citizens compared to more than 30 percent of the U.K. population that has received at least the first shot.

The World Health Organization condemned Italy’s move, calling it “a worrying trend” that risked jeopardizing the global supply chains for the coveted vaccines since the E.U. is one of the largest vaccine producers. The ban does not impact vaccines distributed to poor nations through the COVAX plan, the Italian foreign ministry confirmed.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday that the blocked vials won’t impact the country’s vaccine rollout, which is just getting underway. “In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe,” he said in a statement to the press. “They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia.”

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