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France could follow Italy and block vaccine shipments, health minister says

France said Friday it may follow Italy in blocking Covid-19 vaccine shipments as concerns about vaccine nationalism rise.

The comments by French Health Minister Olivier Véran came the day after Rome invoked European Union powers to block the export of 250,000 Covid-19 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia, in a dramatic escalation of a dispute between the bloc and the drug giant.

“Of course, I understand what Italy did,” Véran said during an interview with CNN affiliate BFM on Friday. “We could do the same thing.”

A spokesperson for Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told CNN that Italy and the European Commission had agreed on the action. This is the first time that such EU measures have been used for vaccines. AstraZeneca’s supply chain includes a manufacturing plant in Anagni, Italy.

“We are closely discussing with Italians, as well as with all our European partners to have a European approach on the issue.” Véran said.

“Since the first day, France has believed in a shared European approach,” he added.

In late January, a public and acrimonious fight erupted between the EU and AstraZeneca over vaccine delays, after the company advised the bloc that it would deliver tens of millions fewer doses than agreed by the end of March.

The European Commission later adopted new measures giving member states the power to restrict the export of vaccines outside the bloc, in certain situations. Italy justified invoking the powers by citing AstraZeneca’s delays in supplying its vaccine to Italy and the EU, and noting that Australia is not considered a “vulnerable” nation to Covid-19 by the EU.

“The message is very clearly … that we expect companies with which the European Union has signed advanced purchasing agreements, to do their utmost to comply with the contracts with the delivery contracts that they have with the with the Member States,” Eric Mamer, the European Union’s chief spokesperson, said Friday.

He added: “The fact is that the European Union (EU) is a major exporter of vaccine doses.”

“We have always said, that we were actually in intense discussions with the company in order to ensure the respect of the schedule of deliveries because EMA has authorized this vaccine, and we are urging member states to use it.”

The European Commission’s executive vice president for trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, discussed the matter with his Australian counterpart Dan Tehan in a call on Friday.

“While we understand the political pressures at play within Europe, blocking exports to meet domestic vaccination targets is a very dangerous card for policymakers to play,” John Denton, the secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) warned in a statement Thursday.

He added: “The challenge of getting vaccines to everyone, everywhere — without delay — will only be met through a collaborative global effort to scale manufacturing and speed distribution efforts. It’s not too late for governments to change course and avert the huge economic and social risks of a prolonged pandemic.”

Véran’s remarks come a day after France announced plans to accelerate the country’s coronavirus vaccine rollout program, with an increase in deliveries expected, according to French PM Jean Castex.

“The delivery of doses to France will increase in the coming weeks,” Castex said during a press briefing on Thursday.

“We will also be able to use the AstraZeneca vaccine more widely. The High Authority for Health has indicated that people over 65 are now eligible for this vaccine,” Castex added, noting that the government aims to vaccinate more than 20 million people by mid-May.

The EU’s vaccine rollout has continued to falter, pushing some increasingly frustrated member states to turn to outside nations for assistance. Only 5.5% of the EU population of 447 million has received a first vaccine dose, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Castex warned that only one in three health care workers in France have so far received a vaccine and said hospitals across the country are “still under strong pressure.”

Véran was also present at Thursday’s press briefing. “We have effective vaccines, starting with AstraZeneca. It is our responsibility to protect ourselves and those we care for,” he said.

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