Pfizer
(Image: ABACA Press/Robin Utrecht)

Australia risks becoming collateral damage as the simmering EU vaccine war escalated dramatically overnight amid claims Europe is facing the “crisis of the century”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threated to seize AstraZeneca factories and even strip the company of its intellectual property rights in an effort to prevent more vaccines being exported.

With the EU facing a third wave of COVID-19 and struggling to vaccinate its 450 million citizens, she warned overnight that “everything is on the table”.

Exports of the vaccine to Australia have already been jeopardised by the stoush, but the real target is the United Kingdom for being too successful in its vaccination program.

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Incredibly, the UK government has finally got its act together and managed to vaccinate some 25 million people (yes, the population of Australia) in only 100 days while the EU has been lagging and claims Britain is withholding vital vaccine exports to Europe.

To sum up the vaccine wars: the UK has been successfully producing AstraZeneca vaccines and has contracts to send them to Europe while the majority of the vaccines exported from the EU to the UK have been made by Pfizer, which distributes globally from Europe. The EU has already blocked one export request of 250,000 Oxford AstraZeneca doses from Italy to Australia.

While Brussels’ desperate and heavy-handed response has brought no end of smugness to the Brexit brigade in Britain, the broader international implications are enormous.

There are the obvious immediate health issues, “life and death” as the EU is warning, but it is a timely reminder of the dangers of protectionism of any kind and how quickly the rules-based order can deteriorate.

And it’s not like we haven’t had plenty of warning during the pandemic of the “every country for itself” approach — who can forget China buying up PPE from around the world.

A year ago the Australian government had a stark warning that we would need to ramp up local supply chains, especially local vaccine manufacturing capability. Thankfully biotech company CSL seems to have the ball rolling, despite some initial hiccups with AstraZeneca production.

(It probably helps that a key AstraZeneca executive actually lives in Australia.)

The EU crisis is a timely reminder of why more action is needed here now. Only last month in a pre-budget submission to the federal government the Australian Academy of Science warned we would be more at risk of global vaccination shortages unless onshore manufacturing capabilities are increased.

Incredible that the nation’s leading scientists saw it coming. Not so incredible that the Morrison government has merely done a warmed-over press release for a $1.5 billion modern manufacturing strategy without addressing the call for more funding, specifically for locally produced vaccines.

It has the chance to address that in the upcoming budget, but with the EU vaccine war escalating and the Australian rollout slowly underway, let’s hope it don’t wait until the next crisis.