Italy blocks EU vaccine delivery to Australia
Australian Prime Minister press conference in Sydney - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference following National Cabinet. 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. - Dean Lewins/AAP/dpa

Australian Prime Miniser Scott Morrison told his Cabinet on Friday that he understood why the European Union blocked 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from being sent to Australia, but nonetheless asked the bloc to rethink the move.

He told lawmakers that some 300 people were dying every day in Italy. "And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe."

"They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia," Morrison said.

Australia has nonetheless called on the European Commission to reconsider its decision, Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters.

Earlier, authorities in Canberra said they were "disappointed and frustrated" about the move.

"We are obviously disappointed and frustrated by this decision, but it is also why we took a belt and braces approach," Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News.

"We've contracted up to 150 million doses of vaccines, including 50 million doses to be produced here in Australia," he said.

"The world is in quite uncharted territory at present, it's unsurprising that some countries will tear up the rule book."

The EU used its Covid-19 vaccine export ban for the first time to prevent the shots from leaving Italy for Australia, EU sources told dpa on Thursday.

"Australia today is considered a country 'not vulnerable' according to EU rules," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a Facebook post.

"[The block] is not an hostile act towards Australia, but it is within the EU framework on exports," Di Maio said.

Paris welcomed the move on Friday. French secretary of state for European affairs Clement Beaune said the decision showed that Europeans would not hesitate to defend their interests, in comments to broadcaster RTL France.

Beaune, a confidant of French President Emmanuel Macron, said Italy had done the right thing in preventing the delivery, saying it would have involved large numbers of doses and that the need in Europe was greater than that in Australia.

The EU set up a register keeping track of vaccine exports in January amid a row with AstraZeneca about whether the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm was fulfilling its contractual obligations with the bloc.

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 its agreements.

Unlike other Covid-19 shot producers Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, AstraZeneca has not yet delivered all the doses it promised to the EU.

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.

Meanwhile, the first AstraZeneca jabs were being administered in Australia on Friday, after a different shipment arrived last week.

"This 250,000-dose issue is not going to affect the roll-out," Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told the Nine Network, adding that the first AstraZeneca doses to be produced locally would be ready within weeks.

Australia, a nation of around 25 million people, has recorded around 29,000 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic - a significantly lower per capita rate than most developed countries. The national death toll currently stands at 909.

Meanwhile Italy, with a population of about 60 million people, has seen just under 3 million cases since the outbreak began.