More than 700,000 AstraZeneca doses secretly flown to Australia from Britain

London: Hundreds of thousands of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been flown from the United Kingdom to Australia but the source of the shipments was kept quiet to avoid any controversy in coronavirus-ravaged Britain.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can reveal Australia’s early rollout has been propped up by 717,000 doses manufactured in the UK rather than from factories in Europe as widely believed.

The need to source jabs from the UK underscores the difficulties Australia and AstraZeneca have faced in extracting supply from the EU under the bloc’s tough new export controls. It is now known that not a single AstraZeneca dose has been exported to Australia from Europe.

This shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived at Sydney Airport from the UK and not Europe as first thought. Credit:Edwina Pickles

The first 300,000 UK-made doses landed at Sydney Airport on February 28 – one month after the European Commission introduced new curbs limiting the export of vaccines produced on the continent.

The Morrison government said at the time that the shipment had come from “overseas”, which was presumed to be continental Europe, a major hub for production.

Another large batch arrived on an Emirates passenger plane in March, well after Italy and the European Commission formally blocked an application by AstraZeneca to ship 250,000 doses to Australia.

AstraZeneca is producing the vaccine at no-profit for the duration of the pandemic. Credit:AP

Australian Health Department secretary Dr Brendan Murphy told Sky News last month that Britain had “helped us a lot” but did not say how.

The revelation that Australia had received AstraZeneca doses made in Britain could explain why Italy and the European Commission blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses in early March. It is likely that European officials knew then that the doses that had arrived in Australia in late February originated in the UK.

A commission spokesperson on Wednesday said Italy blocked the export because “AstraZeneca is not meeting its obligations in the EU”.

“So far, the company has delivered much less than what was foreseen,” the spokesperson said. “The pandemic continues to be very acute in the EU.”

Australia had originally agreed with AstraZeneca to import 500,000 doses but Europe suggested a figure of 250,000 might be more appropriate and have a better chance of getting around export curbs.

But even that application was rejected. The request was the only one knocked back out of 491 applications.

The European Commission might come under fresh pressure to approve the export of AstraZeneca vaccines to Canberra given it is now known that no doses have been sent to Australia from European factories.

Asked whether the commission would review its position, the spokesperson said: “It is important to note that since the implementation of the export authorisation system, Australia has received more than one million doses of vaccines from the EU.”

Those one million doses are Pfizer jabs. Pfizer is largely meeting its contract with the EU so its exports are not being blocked.

AstraZeneca, which is producing the COVID-19 vaccine at cost for the duration of the pandemic, is facing global pressure to boost supply. It had planned to provide 180 million doses to the EU in the second quarter but will only deliver 40 million.

The British-Swedish company also told the Morrison government in January that it could only provide 1.2 million offshore doses in February and March instead of the expected 3.8 million. Only 717,000 doses – the ones from the UK – have arrived so far, leaving 3.1 million doses in the balance.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has blamed that shortfall for Australia’s failure to meet a target of vaccinating 4 million people by the end of March. He vowed on Wednesday to write to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and AstraZeneca to seek the release of the doses.

The commission’s spokesperson said any future export requests “will be assessed on a case by case basis”.

More than 50 million AstraZeneca doses will be made by CSL in Melbourne. The company forecast in February that it would release 2 million doses by the end of March and then release 1 million doses a week after that. But so far, the company has released 1.3 million doses.

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