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More than 700,000 AstraZeneca doses secretly flown to Australia from Britain

Unlike the European Union, the UK government does not have a direct right to approve or reject vaccine exports. However government officials have known about the Australian shipments and never publicly disclosed them.

While the UK has sent vaccines to its overseas territories such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, Australia is thought to be the only country to receive AstraZeneca vaccines made in British factories.

The UK has domestic production capacity, but has been heavily reliant on vaccine imports from Europe and India.

One senior Whitehall official stressed the shipments to Australia was never at the expense of the UK’s rollout, which has been one of the world’s fastest. Three in five adults in the UK have already been given at least one dose since the program began in December.

The official declined to be named because they were not authorised to talk about the issue publicly.

Downing Street did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

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On February 28 – the same day the first 300,000 UK-made doses arrived in Australia – Britain recorded 8800 new infections, well down on the January peak of 60,000. By late February more than 30 per cent of the UK population had been given at least one vaccine dose – one of the highest rates in the world.

Johnson’s government has repeatedly said the coronavirus pandemic requires a co-ordinated global vaccination effort and has also warned against the pitfalls of so-called vaccine nationalism.

The European Commission gave itself sweeping powers in January to block vaccine exports if AstraZeneca failed to meet its contracts with the bloc.

London and Brussels have been at loggerheads over vaccine supply after European leaders accused AstraZeneca of prioritising post-Brexit Britain ahead of Europe’s 450 million citizens.

In early March, European Council President Charles Michel claimed the UK had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory”. That claim was wrong because doses manufactured in the UK had already been exported to Australia a fortnight earlier.

The UK government swiftly denied Michel’s claim of an “outright ban” and stressed it had not blocked any exports. However it has repeatedly refused to say whether any vaccines had been sent abroad and if so, where.

AstraZeneca is producing the vaccine at no-profit for the duration of the pandemic.

AstraZeneca is producing the vaccine at no-profit for the duration of the pandemic. Credit:AP

Australian Health Department secretary Dr Brendan Murphy told Sky News last month that Britain had “helped us a lot” but did not say how.

The revelation that Australia had received AstraZeneca doses made in Britain could explain why Italy and the European Commission blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses in early March. It is likely that European officials knew then that the doses that had arrived in Australia in late February originated in the UK.

A commission spokesperson on Wednesday said Italy blocked the export because “AstraZeneca is not meeting its obligations in the EU”.

“So far, the company has delivered much less than what was foreseen,” the spokesperson said. “The pandemic continues to be very acute in the EU.”

Australia had originally agreed with AstraZeneca to import 500,000 doses but Europe suggested a figure of 250,000 might be more appropriate and have a better chance of getting around export curbs.

But even that application was rejected. The request was the only one knocked back out of 491 applications.

The European Commission might come under fresh pressure to approve the export of AstraZeneca vaccines to Canberra given it is now known that no doses have been sent to Australia from European factories.

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Asked whether the commission would review its position, the spokesperson said: “It is important to note that since the implementation of the export authorisation system, Australia has received more than one million doses of vaccines from the EU.”

Those one million doses are Pfizer jabs. Pfizer is largely meeting its contract with the EU so its exports are not being blocked.

AstraZeneca, which is producing the COVID-19 vaccine at cost for the duration of the pandemic, is facing global pressure to boost supply. It had planned to provide 180 million doses to the EU in the second quarter but will only deliver 40 million.

The British-Swedish company also told the Morrison government in January that it could only provide 1.2 million offshore doses in February and March instead of the expected 3.8 million. Only 717,000 doses – the ones from the UK – have arrived so far, leaving 3.1 million doses in the balance.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has blamed that shortfall for Australia’s failure to meet a target of vaccinating 4 million people by the end of March. He vowed on Wednesday to write to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and AstraZeneca to seek the release of the doses.

The commission’s spokesperson said any future export requests “will be assessed on a case by case basis”.

More than 50 million AstraZeneca doses will be made by CSL in Melbourne. The company forecast in February that it would release 2 million doses by the end of March and then release 1 million doses a week after that. But so far, the company has released 1.3 million doses.

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