The European Union used its Covid-19 vaccine export ban for the first time to halt 250,000 AstraZeneca shots leaving Italy for Australia, EU sources said on Thursday, confirming a Financial Times report.
The bloc set up a register keeping track of vaccine exports in January amid a row with AstraZeneca about whether the British-Swedish vaccine producer was fulfilling its contractual obligations with the EU.
The mechanism allows national authorities, in consultation with the European Commission, to block exports headed out of the EU if the bloc believes a firm is not honouring their agreements.
Authorities in Canberra on Friday said they were "disappointed and frustrated" that the European Union blocked 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from being sent to Australia.
"Australia today is considered a country 'not vulnerable' according to EU rules," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a Facebook post.
Unlike other Covid-19 shot producers Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, AstraZeneca has not yet delivered the doses it promised the EU. The company slashed first-quarter projected deliveries from 80 million to 40 million doses, citing production difficulties.
There was suspicion that vaccines produced in the EU were being sold to countries outside the bloc, leading to the creation of the export register.
Several outward shipments of vaccines produced in the EU have been given the OK since the system was set up.
The EU was criticized heavily for the initiative at the time, with the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that the world's poorest countries stand to suffer the most if vaccines are hoarded by wealthy countries.
Developing countries and a number of EU partner countries are excluded from the mechanism.
EU governments are under great pressure as they lag behind vaccination race front-runners like Israel and Britain.
The commission, which negotiated with pharmaceutical firms to procure vaccines on behalf of the member states, has also come under fire for its strategy in recent weeks.