On Thursday, Italy blocked the export of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine bound for Australia. With support from the European Commission, the Italian government has barred vaccine exports to Australia after the Anglo-Swedish company failed to deliver the doses it promised.
Over the past seven days Italy has had an average of just under 18,700 new COVID cases a day. It’s seen more infections in the past 36 hours than Australia has ever had. Australia’s total case count remains shy of 30,000; Italy’s just passed 3 million.
Europe is at a high risk of seeing a new, highly infectious mutation to emerge, and speeding up the vaccines roll-out is crucial to avoid that.
“The more viral transmission we have the more the likelihood of the virus having further opportunities to mutate,” says Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University.
“From an individual country perspective, it is going to be the goal to deliver vaccines as quickly as possible,” says Vally. “However, from a global perspective, it’s easy to appreciate that countries that have not been able to control COVID-19 transmission have a much greater need for vaccine doses.”
Australia recently received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine – their rollout has just begun – in addition to more than 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Local drug manufacturer CSL is set to produce 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of the month and then 1 million every week up to a total of 50 million doses.
Of the doses withheld by Italy, “this should not impact too much”, says Vally.
But while the wealthiest countries, including Australia and European nations, are receiving the vast majority of the doses produced globally, low- and medium-income regions of the world with the worst disease burden – such as South America, Africa and some Middle East countries – are ignored.
“There needs to be a greater focus on making sure the distribution of vaccines is equitable,” says Vally. The risk is that the pandemic will go on for all, he says: as long as the virus is spreading in any part of the world, it will impact everyone’s lives.
“The pandemic is a global issue that needs a global solution,” says Vally.