Hundreds of thousands of doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine have been discreetly flown to Australia from the UK, it has been reported.
The Sydney Morning Herald said the shipment of more than 700,000 AstraZeneca jabs that were manufactured in Britain were kept quiet “to avoid any controversy” amid a row over vaccine supplies with the European Union.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month that AstraZeneca must “catch up” on deliveries on the vaccine to the EU before exporting doses elsewhere, after the bloc introduced export controls on doses produced within it.
The newspaper reported that the shipments from the UK arrived after the EU introduced curbs on vaccine exports. It said that while the UK government does not have the right to approve or reject vaccine exports, government officials knew about the shipments and “never publicly disclosed them”.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the UK government had not sent any vaccines to Australia and any exports that had taken place were a matter for the companies concerned.
He told Sky News: “In terms of what the companies do, these companies are manufacturing for all around the world.
“What matters for us as the UK government is making sure that we get the supplies that we have contracted from the companies.”
The newspaper said the shipments to Australia were never at the expense of the UK’s vaccine rollout, citing an anonymous British government official. The UK’s vaccination programme is one of the swiftest in the world, having administered 31.7 million first doses of a Covid vaccine.
A government spokesperson said: “Producing vaccines is an international endeavour and the UK is proud to be playing a leading role in the global effort to develop and distribute the coronavirus vaccine.
“We are continuing to make exceptional progress through the rollout of our vaccination programme and remain confident in our supplies.
“The details of any commercial vaccine supply agreements between national governments and AstraZeneca are commercially sensitive and a matter for those two parties.”
On Wednesday, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called on the EU to supply 3.1 million outstanding AstraZeneca doses to Australia. Mr Morrison has blamed the EU for delays to his country’s vaccination programme.
It comes after the European Commission blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia in March.
AstraZeneca UK did not comment on the reports.
Additional reporting by agencies