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Italy blocks vaccine shipment to Australia as furor over slow European roll-out grows

Italy has blocked a shipment of the Astrazeneca Plc.’s coronavirus vaccine to Australia, using a recently introduced European Union regulation, in a move that risks triggering a global backlash.

The move comes after Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called during an EU summit last week for a tougher approach against companies that don’t respect their delivery commitments. Officials in Brussels and in Rome confirmed the news of the export ban of 250,000 doses of the shots, which was first reported by the Financial Times.

In January, the European Commission introduced legislation which allows curbs on exports of coronavirus vaccines if drugmakers fail to meet delivery targets within the bloc. The rules came into force after AstraZeneca had informed the EU that it was unable to meet its commitments under an advance purchase agreement with the bloc.

So far Italy is the first country to block the export of vaccines outside the EU, while over 170 requests have been authorized, according to a separate EU diplomat. The decision risks triggering a global protectionist push, as countries areound the world race to immunize their populations.

Under the EU’s export transparency mechanism, countries have to inform the European Commission of their decisions to block or allow exports of vaccines outside the block. The commission did not oppose Italy’s decision, nor does it have the power to block it, an EU official said.

Draghi is working on an overhaul of Italy’s slow and uneven vaccination campaign, focusing on logistics and recruiting the military to help, as new variants accelerate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The former head of the European Central Bank has signaled a strong break with the past by replacing two key officials who were in charge of countering the virus, and he wants to streamline and standardize inoculation procedures across the country, according to officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential preparations.

The premier is banking on an improved vaccination campaign to help kick-start an economy which shrunk almost 9% in 2020, crippled by the pandemic and both regional and nationwide lockdowns.