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Russia’s Sputnik vaccine is luring Eastern Europe, worrying the EU

A healthcare professional holds a syringe with the Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) Covid-19 vaccine.

Alexander River TASS | Getty Images

As the European Union struggles to accelerate the spread of coronavirus vaccines in the 27-nation bloc, Russia’s Covid shot is appealing to its friends in Eastern Europe, creating another potential rift in the region.

The Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia have expressed interest in procuring and implementing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, a move that could undermine the pan-European approach to approving and administering coronavirus vaccines.

Czech Prime Minister Andrei Babis said on Sunday that his country could use the Sputnik V vaccine even without approval from the EU Medicines Agency, the European Medicines Agency.

This comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made a phone call last Friday to discuss “possible deliveries of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to Austria, as well as its possible co-production,”

; the Kremlin said, noting that Austria initiated the call. So far, Austria has indicated that it will not circumvent the EMA with regard to vaccine approval.

Hungary, an EU country linked to Brussels and whose leader, Viktor Orban, is considered a close ally of Putin, has not shown such hesitation. It became the first European country to authorize in January – bypassing the EMA – and purchase the Sputnik V vaccine.

The country reportedly expects 2 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine to be delivered over the next three months, according to the Moscow Times. Hungary also approved the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm last month, again opposing the grain when it comes to approving the EU vaccine.

On Monday, Slovakia became the second European country to announce the purchase of the Sputnik V vaccine, providing 2 million doses of the shot. The Slovak health minister said it would not be administered immediately, as a green light is still required from the country’s national regulator.

A Slovak Army aircraft carrying doses of the Sputnik V vaccine against coronavirus (Covid-19) was parked on asphalt on its arrival from Moscow, at the international airport in Košice, Slovakia, on March 1, 2021.


What’s happening?

The main road to the Russian vaccine comes amid widespread frustration with the slow pace of vaccination coverage in the EU. This was hampered by the bloc’s decision to co-purchase vaccines, and its orders came later from other countries, including Britain and the United States.

Problems with production and bureaucracy – and for some countries the fluctuation of vaccines – are also a barrier to launch.

Nevertheless, the move by some Eastern European countries to unilaterally support the Russian vaccine is bound to provoke hackers in Brussels, as it undermines the EU’s desire for a unified approach and a sense of fairness in the distribution of vaccines.

There are also concerns about Sputnik V, although subsequent data support the efficacy and reliability of the vaccine.

The vaccine was approved by the Russian health regulator in August last year before the end of clinical trials, which has sparked skepticism among experts that it may not meet strict safety and efficacy standards. Some experts say the Kremlin is eager to claim victory in the race to develop the Covid vaccine.

However, an interim analysis of a phase 3 clinical trial of the shot, involving 20,000 participants and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet in early February, found that the vaccine was 91.6% effective against symptomatic Covid-19 infection.

In an accompanying article in the Lancet, Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, England, notes that “the development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticized for its indecent speed. But the result reported here is clear and research demonstrates the principle of vaccination. which means that another vaccine can now be included in the fight to reduce the incidence of Covid-19. “

The Gamalea National Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, which developed the vaccine, has not yet applied to the EMA for marketing authorization for the vaccine, the EU Medicines Agency said in early February.

One woman received the second component of the Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) COVID-19 vaccine.

Valentin Sprinchak TASS | Getty Images

RDIF, Russia’s state welfare fund that supported the development of Sputnik V, told CNBC on Monday that it had applied to the EU Drugs Agency in mid-February for an ongoing review of the vaccine. However, the EMA did not confirm this, and CNBC asked the EMA for comment.

Political theater

The European Commission has already warned Hungary, albeit indirectly, against the use of the Russian vaccine before the EMA approves it. As early as November, a Commission spokesman told Reuters that “the question arises as to whether a Member State would like to give its citizens a vaccine that has not been reviewed by the EMA,” adding that public confidence in vaccination could be undermined.

“This is where the vaccination authorization process and trust come into play. If our citizens start questioning the safety of the vaccine, if it has not undergone a rigorous scientific evaluation to prove its safety and efficacy, it will be much harder to vaccinate. a sufficient part of the population, “the spokesman said, Reuters reported.

However, Hungary’s decision to do so itself with regard to the Sputnik V vaccine is not surprising to EU observers. The country’s right-wing leader, Viktor Orban – a “strong man” similar to Russia’s Putin – has had several disputes with the EU executive in recent years, especially over signs of growing government authoritarianism. The erosion of judicial independence and freedom of the press in Hungary is of particular importance to the EU. However, the Hungarian government rejects such criticism.

Gustav Gressel, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC on Monday that Hungary’s actions were “part of Orban’s campaign to promote ‘decadence, the decline of the EU’ and Hungary’s future in the east, with Russia and China, “a trend he said has been going on for some time.

Meanwhile, Dara McDowell, Europe’s leader and chief Russian analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, described the geopolitics surrounding Sputnik V and the EU as “political theater more than anything else.”

“For Hungary and Austria, an element of foreign policy signaling is included here, as both Kurz and Orban usually have a closer relationship with Putin than their European peers. In the case of the Czech Republic, the impetus seems to be more to demonstrate that the government” is doing something “in the face of the rapid increase in the number of cases in February,” he said.

There are also doubts about whether Russia has the ability to mass-produce and deliver its Sputnik V vaccine to Europe on a larger scale.

“While the Sputnik vaccine generally seems to be an effective vaccine, Russia is having great difficulty with proper mass production … not enough Sputnik vaccine is being produced yet,” Gressel said. McDowell noted that “the question is whether Sputnik V can make a noticeable difference given the regulatory and logistical problems and whether the vaccine can be produced in sufficient numbers either by Russian manufacturers or under license.”

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