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The EU's coronavirus vaccine rollout has been plunged into further turmoil after the discovery of 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab in an Italian warehouse, and a row over whether they were headed for the UK.
The find, confirmed on Wednesday, followed an EU-ordered inspection of the Catalent plant in the town of Anagni over the weekend, which sparked controversial interventions from some officials floating the idea of blocking exports to Britain.
Initial reports suggested the doses could have been destined for the UK, whose rollout of vaccines has outstripped that of the EU’s.
This prompted briefings from French and German officials saying the doses should be kept in the EU.
AstraZeneca later confirmed to the Telegraph that some of the doses were due to be distributed to the COVAX scheme, and the rest were waiting for approval ahead of being dispatched to Europe. None were due to be exported to the UK.
A French official had told Reuters the “question of blocking the shipment should be on the table”, while a German official told the same agency “maybe there is an opportunity now to boost deliveries [within the EU]”.
However, an Italian official later said the doses were bound for Belgium.
The briefings from France and Germany demonstrate the political tensions surrounding the vaccine.
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The EU, angry that AstraZeneca has not supplied the vaccines expected for the bloc, has made it clear it is considering whether to ban doses being exported to countries such as the UK with higher inoculation rates.
The extent to which the EU’s rollout has lagged behind the UK is demonstrated by this chart, from Oxford University’s Our World in Data website, showing the overall rate of vaccines administered per 100 people as of Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the EU refined its rules on the export of COVID vaccines, giving it a clearer right to block shipments to countries with higher rates.
A joint statement from the EU and UK later in the day said the two sides were in talks and seeking a “win-win” deal to increase supplies in both markets.
The European Commission, which oversees trade policy for the 27 EU members, set out a proposal expanding existing measures that seek to ensure planned exports by drug makers do not threaten reduced EU supply.
The granting of export licences would be based on reciprocity and "proportionality”: the epidemiological situation, vaccination rate and access to vaccines in the destination country.
It has not commented on the discovery of the 29 million doses in the Italian plant.
Tensions have simmered since January, when the EU threatened to block the flow of vaccines into Northern Ireland.
In public, Boris Johnson has been careful to strike a diplomatic tone when addressing those tensions, saying at Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference: “All I can say is we in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind, of vaccines or vaccine material, [it’s] not something this country would dream of engaging in."
However, the prime minister was under pressure on Wednesday after it emerged he had joked that “greed” and capitalism had contributed to the success of UK's vaccine rollout.
The PM made the comments at a private meeting of Tory MPs, but then hastily sought to backtrack as he praised AstraZeneca for supplying the vaccine at cost.
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