Australia urges AstraZeneca to send 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to PNG after EU clearance

FILE PHOTO: Vials labelled "Astra Zeneca COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed AstraZeneca logo, in this illustration photo taken March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's Minister for Trade has urged AstraZeneca to dispatch 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Papua New Guinea amid concerns about the spread of the virus there, saying the EU had pledged no hindrance to the exports.

"We have very clear assurances (from Brussels) that AstraZeneca does not have to apply through the EU export transparency regime to send those one million doses to Papua New Guinea," Minister Dan Tehan told reporters in London on Thursday, speaking during a trade mission to Europe.

"There is nothing that is preventing them from sending those one million doses, from Europe to PNG and the ball is clearly in AstraZeneca's court."

AstraZeneca did not immediately respond to requests for comment on when it would supply the doses to PNG, which officials worry is in danger of being overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Australia has yet to receive 3.1 million vaccine doses that AstraZeneca agreed to supply after the shipments became entangled in EU export restrictions.

But Tehan said EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis assured him such restrictions did not apply to the PNG consignment, and AstraZeneca must move quickly to send the shipment.

PNG has detected more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19, but health officials say this likely vastly underestimates the scale of the outbreak as the Pacific country's fragile health system is unable to conduct mass testing.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this month said the EU refusal to allow the export of 3.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine was a key reason for Canberra lagging behind its own vaccination timetable.

However, the EU said it had formally only blocked 250,000 doses destined for Australia.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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