CANBERRA (REUTERS) - Australia said on Wednesday (April 7) it will ask the European Union to release more than 3 million doses of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine, testing Brussel's claim it is not blocking shipments, as the country struggles to vaccinate its population.
The European Union on Tuesday denied blocking vaccine shipments to Australia, which has fallen dramatically behind in its scheduled vaccination programme. The EU said it was not responsible for AstraZeneca's failure to uphold commitments to other countries.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was asked by the EU to withdraw export permit applications and letters requesting supplies have gone unanswered.
Morrison said if the EU was now indicating its willingness to release shipments, he would again ask for the 3.1 million doses to be released. The 3.1 million doses were scheduled to arrive in Australia by the end of March.
"We obviously want those millions of doses," Morrison told reporters in the capital Canberra.
"Given statements made overnight, that apparently there is no obstruction to that and then I would hope that could be readily addressed." Morrison on Wednesday insisted he was not criticising the EU, but senior members of his government continued to blame the EU for blocking vaccines.
"They're not giving approval is effectively the same as blocking," Australia's Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
Australia says the delay in receiving the 3.1 million additional doses is why it has fallen behind in vaccinations.
Only about 670,000 people have been vaccinated against an initial government target of 4 million by March-end.
Australia has recorded a small number of Covid-19 cases compared to most nations and has now eradicated the virus from its community, but its slow vaccine roll out is pressuring Morrison who is struggling in the polls a year out from the next election after a series of damaging allegations about the mistreatment of female lawmakers and staff in his Liberal party.
The struggle to vaccinate
The dispute between Australia and the EU emphasises the challenge facing European nations which are struggling to vaccinate their own populations and the impact of new EU vaccine export controls on countries that had pre-ordered doses.
Australia received an initial shipment of 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in late February, which it said was the last received.
Last month the EU, at Italy's request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.
The AstraZeneca vaccine arriving from Europe was to underpin the early stages of Australia's vaccine drive, supplementing 50 million shots of the vaccine that will be produced locally by CSL. It has also imported doses of Pfizer's vaccine for frontline Covid-19 workers.
Australia has recorded just 29,365 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began.