More than 700,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have been flown from the UK to Australia, it has been reported.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a batch of 300,000 UK-manufactured doses of the COVID jab landed at Sydney Airport on 28 February.
And another large batch is said to have arrived on an Emirates passenger plane in March.
The newspaper said the revelation dispelled previously widespread assumptions that Australia’s vaccine shipments were coming from the EU.
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Australia has begun its vaccination programme with high-risk workers, the medically vulnerable and the elderly.
However, it has fallen far below an initial target of giving a vaccine to four million people by the end of March.
As of Easter Sunday, according to official figures, a total of 841,885 vaccine doses had been given in Australia.
The slow rollout of COVID vaccines has been blamed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on supply issues.
He this week claimed the country was missing more than three million doses it had been promised, amid an ongoing jabs row with the EU.
Questioned about reports the UK sent 300,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, Matt Hancock says the majority of jabs being used have been produced in the UK, but ‘in terms of what these companies do, they’re manufacturing for all around the world.’https://t.co/lH99dxDNVQ pic.twitter.com/F6HQZVU1mn
— Sky News (@SkyNews) April 8, 2021
Asked about the revelation that 717,000 AstraZeneca doses manufactured in the UK had been flown to Australia over the last two months, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not deny the report.
He told Sky News: “In terms of what the companies do, these companies are manufacturing for all around the world and we source from everywhere in the world.
“So what I’m in control of, what matters for us as the UK government, is making sure that we get the supplies that we have got contracted from the companies.”
But Mr Hancock said the UK government did not send the doses.
He added: “No, the British Government has a contract with seven companies now, but of course including AstraZeneca, for the delivery by AstraZeneca to the UK for us to deploy through the NHS, and that’s the bit I’m responsible for.”
Mr Morrison’s government this week said it was continuing to seek access to 3.1 million AstraZeneca doses manufactured in the EU, out of a total 3.8m doses it had pre-purchased from overseas supplies.
Earlier this year, the European Commission introduced export controls on COVID vaccines manufactured within the bloc, amid intense pressure at the slow rollout of vaccines among EU member states.
In March, the European Commission blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine being exported from Italy to Australia.
At the time, the Australian government appeared to shrug off the incident, saying the shipment was “not factored into” its vaccination programme for the coming weeks.
Australia has had less than 30,000 coronavirus cases in total since the start of the pandemic and has recently had much more relaxed COVID restrictions – albeit with strict border measures – when compared to European countries.
A third wave of infections across much of Europe has recently forced national leaders into new lockdown measures.
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Australia has secured access to a total 150 million doses of COVID vaccines, including 53.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab and 20 million of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab – the two vaccines currently approved for use in the country.
Vaccine supplies from Europe were meant to underpin the early stages of Australia’s programme, with 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab due to be manufactured locally by CSL.
In the UK, there has been a warning of a significant reduction in weekly vaccine supplies this month.
Mr Hancock has previously pointed to delays in the supply of five million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India, as well as a need to retest a batch of 1.7 million vaccine doses.
Sky News has contacted AstraZeneca for comment.