Mario Draghi blocks a COVID-19 vaccine shipment for Australia

“We need to go faster, much faster” commented Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Draghi during the last European Council meeting that, among other things, touched upon the European vaccination strategy. Did this hurry lead him to block the 250,000 AstraZeneca’s vaccine shipment to Australia on the 4th of March? Maybe. Will this demonstration of strength change the pace of the EU vaccine rollout? Perhaps. What is sure is that Mr Draghi’s bold action has set a clear sign: the EU is losing its patience.

The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca reached an Advance Purchase Agreement (APA) with the EU that is worth €2.7 billion. The agreement established that AstraZeneca would provide the EU with 100 million doses by March – a number that is far from being close to the actual 40 million doses that were distributed amongst the Member States so far. This is an unpleasant situation that has increased public outcry against the Member States’ leaders as well as against the EU itself. The EU has spurred Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s CEO, to comply with the agreement. As a response, Soriot released an interview where he argued that they signed a contract with the EU where AstraZeneca agreed on doing their ‘best effort’ to comply with the stipulated supply. Effectively, this is a losing formula for the EU because it essentially left it to AstraZeneca to decide who to provide with vaccines first, without adopting any legally binding acts.

Soriot is a businessman doing business, but the EU cannot afford to run out of vaccines.

For this reason, the transparency and authorisation mechanism for exports of COVID-19 vaccines was introduced by the EU on 30 January and is meant to run until 31 March 2021. With this measure, the EU communicated in a very diplomatic fashion that, in the name of transparency, the EU Member States have the right to block any COVID-19 vaccine deliveries that have been created in the EU and are meant to leave the bloc. The aim is clear: keeping vaccines, other than those meant for humanitarian aid, within the EU to then distribute them amongst the Member States thereby soothing the peoples’ fears – and saving the €2.7 billion investment.  

But does this mean that there are some labs that produce the precious vaccine in the EU? Yes, and one of them is in Italy. A fact that did not go unnoticed by the newly formed Draghi cabinet. In fact, Draghi did not even wait a month before taking one of his intrepid actions, by intercepting the 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine shipment meant for Australia. This can be interpreted as a strong symbolic gesture. Strong because, on the one hand, it has been the first time an EU country dared making use of the new measure and, on the other hand, it has proved that the EU is able and willing to stop exporting vaccines– as the US and UK have been doing up until now. Symbolic because 250,000 doses are peanuts if compared to the 100 million that the EU was expecting. What Italy – and by extension, the EU – would like to achieve with this action is a potential change in step regarding the vaccination campaign. Only Draghi, the former head of the ECB who arguably saved the Euro and by consequence probably the entire EU, could have imposed himself like that without being torn apart. By breaking the ice, Draghi set the steppingstone for the remaining EU Members states who are likely to follow suit.

Draghi, supported by the EU Commission, made the first move. Now we have to wait for AstraZeneca’s countermove to see what happens next.