Chris Hipkins disappointed after Italy blocks shipment of 250,000 COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is disappointed to hear that Italy has blocked a COVID-19 vaccine shipment to Australia - the first European Union country to do so. 

The Italian Government has blocked the export of 250,000 Astra-Zeneca vaccines to Australia, using new European Union regulations in January allowing exports to be stopped if the company has failed to meet its contractual obligations. 

The EU signed a deal with AstraZeneca in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more, but earlier this year the UK-Swedish company announced production delays at factories in the Netherlands and Belgium. 

Instead of receiving the 100 million doses by the end of March, the EU is now expected to get just 40 million - and Italy is not pleased, arguing that Europe is in a much more vulnerable state than Australia. 

According to international media reports, Italy told the European Commission last week it intended to block the shipment to Australia and received authorisation to do so. 

Australia already received 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca on Sunday, more than doubling the amount of all vaccines shipped to the country so far and allowing the Australian Government to start its wider immunisation programme. 

In a statement to ABC, a spokesperson for Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said the shipment that had already arrived in Australia would "take us through" to when it is made locally from the end of the month. 

New Zealand has invested in a portfolio of four vaccines - 750,000 doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, 5 million from Janssen, 3.8 million from AstraZeneca and 5.36 million from Novavax.

Hipkins said New Zealand has made clear the Government's concern at the European Union's export restrictions for COVID-19 vaccines manufactured in the EU. 

"It's disappointing to hear Australia is experiencing delays in the shipments of its contracted AstraZeneca vaccines from Europe," he told Newshub. 

"Vaccine manufacturing relies on global supply chains. It is in all countries' interests to ensure the smooth functioning of these supply chains, and actively facilitate the flow of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine-related goods."

New Zealand's medicine regulator Medsafe is yet to approve use of AstraZeneca, and Hipkins said it expects to hear from the company this month about where it will be manufactured if it is approved. 

"It's important to note that, to date, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one to receive provisional approval for use here in New Zealand," Hipkins said. 

More than half of New Zealand's estimated 12,000 border workforce have now received their first vaccinations, as the third batch of Pfizer vaccines arrived in the country this week, the Government announced on Wednesday. 

But the Government is yet to provide a full rollout plan like Australia. The Government expects to start vaccinating the general public from the middle of the year, but no concrete date has been set.  

As of midnight on Tuesday, a total of 9431 people had received their first doses in New Zealand. More than 70 percent of those - 6688 people - have been delivered in the Auckland region.

The third shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines added a further 65,500 doses, bringing the total number of COVID-19 vaccines in New Zealand to 200,000.