Authorities discovered 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in a facility in Italy on Wednesday, prompting some further tension between the European Union and the company amid the bloc’s attempts to restrict vaccine exports.
EU officials told The New York Times that Italian authorities uncovered the stash of doses during a visit to a site near Rome that is being used to produce AstraZeneca vaccines for the 27-nation bloc. The Italian daily La Stampa first reported on the stockpile.
Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi said some of the batches, which can have 1 million doses each, were taken and two batches were sent to Belgium, Reuters reported.
The European Commission had informed the Italian authorities that there was an inconsistency in data between the number of doses AstraZeneca said it was developing in the EU and the amount that the production facilities were reporting.
The Times reported that the discovery sparked concerns among EU officials that AstraZeneca was attempting to export the doses abroad despite the EU’s restrictions to prevent the company from doing so until it provides the promised doses for the bloc.
The EU has said it has received 16.6 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses for the first quarter of the year despite ordering more than 100 million doses.
But in the meantime, AstraZeneca has been on time with its deliveries to Britain. EU officials told the Times there was no evidence the discovered stash was designated for Britain, and the company dismisses allegations that it violated the EU’s contract.
AstraZeneca reported in a statement obtained by Reuters that 16 million doses found in the facility were for the bloc and 13 million were for countries in the COVAX program, which was designed to get doses to poorer nations.
“There are no exports currently planned other than to COVAX countries," AstraZeneca said.
On Wednesday, the EU expanded its rules against vaccine exports out of concerns AstraZeneca will not fulfill the bloc’s second quarter order as well, according to the Times. Countries under the COVAX initiative are exempt from the export regulations.
AstraZeneca has faced other problems in recent weeks as several countries, most of which are in Europe, have suspended administering the company’s vaccine out of concern that the vaccine is connected to cases of blood clots.
But the European Medicines Agency has said the AstraZeneca vaccine remains safe and effective.