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EUROPEAN UNION

EU warns it could block more vaccine exports

European Commission chief says Italy's decision to block an export to Australia last week was "not a one-off"

EU warns it could block more vaccine exports
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expects supply of coronavirus vaccines to increase in April. (Photo by Francisco Seco/AFP

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned on Monday that the bloc could halt further exports of the coronavirus vaccine, after Italy stopped a shipment to Australia.

“That was not a one-off,” the president of the European Commission told business newspaper Wirtschaftswoche.

Italy last week revealed it had blocked the export of 250,700 doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine meant for Australia, blaming the shortage of jabs in virus-hit Europe — and the lack of urgent need in Australia.

Defending Italy’s action, von der Leyen said AstraZeneca had delivered less than 10 percent of the volumes that the bloc had ordered for December to March.

The European Commission has criticised the Anglo-Swedish company for failing to fulfil its delivery schedule to the EU, even as it supplied full doses to Britain.

Under the EU scheme, a company wanting to export outside the bloc needs to apply for permission to the national government, which decides after consulting the commission.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert last week stressed the EU was supplying vaccines to the whole world — unlike countries such as the United States.

“We stand by this European approach, which differs from the American approach when it comes to production, for instance,” Seibert said.

100 million doses vow

As criticism rises within the 27-nation bloc over its stuttering rollout, the commission is battling to secure doses to get the pace of vaccinations back on track.

Von der Leyen said in a separate interview with Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper that she expected the bloc to receive 100 million doses every month from April, thanks both to higher delivery volumes and the regulatory approval of more vaccines.

The EU would receive “in the second quarter an average of around 100 million doses a month, in total 300 million by end June”, she said. 

By February 26, the bloc with a population of 446 million people had received 51.5 million doses, according to official EU data.

The bloc has already approved three vaccines — BioNTech/Pfizer, AstraZeneca/Oxford and Moderna — and the European Medicines Agency is due to decide on Thursday on the Johnson & Johnson single-shot jab.

The regulator last week began a rolling review of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Austria announces it will scrap mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law

Austria's federal government on Thursday announced it would scrap its controversial mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law.

Austria announces it will scrap mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law

Austria will cancel its mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law, the federal government announced during a press conference on Thursday.

The controversial law had been suspended until August after coronavirus infection rates slowed. However, it hadn’t been abolished.

The government could still bring back a set of regulations allowing police to check people’s vaccinated status. Those that could not prove they were either vaccinated, or recently recovered from the disease, would have to pay a fine.

“The omicron variant changed the situation”, health minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

He added that the law was introduced in a different context and was supported by “a clear majority” at the time when hospitals were full and “intensive care units were on the limit”.

The minister said that the new variant has reduced the effectiveness of vaccination against infections and has caused less severe courses of the disease.

“Even people who are willing to vaccinate in principle are now more difficult to convince of the need for a third dose”.

Rauch said the obligation to vaccinate did not increase the take up of the Covid jab. Instead, it “opened deep trenches in Austrian society”, according to the minister.

The controversial law provoked numerous street protests throughout Austria after it was announced.

The minister said that the obligation itself even made some give up on their intent to get the jab.

Living with Covid

The new variants bring a new scenario to Austria and people will need to learn to coexist with the virus, according to the health minister.

“Living with Covid means that we will bring forward a comprehensive package of measures, and today that means the abolition of compulsory vaccination,” Rauch said.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

The minister reiterated that vaccination is essential, especially as it helps prevent hospitalisations and more severe disease courses. He added that there should be an extensive vaccination campaign before Autumn and an expected winter Covid-19 wave.

Currently, about 62 percent of the Austrian population has a valid vaccination certificate. However, the number has decreased as people fail to schedule booster, or a third-dose, appointments.

The ins and outs of the vaccine mandate

The law was first introduced in February, even though the technical requirements for it to be enacted were not in place. The first stage was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining vaccines and the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if not vaccinated, was set to start in mid-March. Before a single person was fined, though, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) suspended the law with an ordinance.

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