European Union officials are fuming over Italy’s agreement to manufacture Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, warning they have yet to approve the jab for use in the bloc.
The production deal, announced earlier this week, has prompted an exchange of angry barbs between EU and Russian officials with the head of the European Medicines Agency, EMA, urging member states to withhold emergency authorization for Sputnik, saying otherwise it would be playing “Russian roulette” with public health.
But Italy, along with several member states, including Hungary, is tiring of the shortage across the bloc of coronavirus vaccines and is desperate to accelerate its inoculation program, although Italy’s health minister has said he will wait for EU approval before any Sputnik jabs are administered to Italians.
The remarks by the EMA’s Christa Wirthumer-Hochem, who has urged EU states to refrain from using Sputnik until her agency has reviewed the vaccine properly, has drawn a sharp response from Moscow. The developers of the vaccine are demanding an apology and the Kremlin has dubbed Wirthumer-Hochem comments “regrettable.”
“We demand a public apology from EMA’s Christa Wirthumer-Hochem for her negative comments on EU states directly approving Sputnik V. Her comments raise serious questions about possible political interference in the ongoing EMA review,” they tweeted.
Russia steps in
Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, said the deal struck between the state-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund, which funded Sputnik’s development, and the Italian-Swiss firm Adienne Pharma & Biotech, could help Italy to make up for the shortfall in vaccines.
Kirill Dmitriev, RDIF’s head, says the deal has the potential to “save many lives in Italy.”
Hungary is already administering Sputnik jabs and the Czech Republic and Slovakia have started to receive doses. Their decision to break ranks with the EU has come as public frustration has mounted with the bloc’s coronavirus inoculation rollout, which has been marred by logistical mistakes and hidebound bureaucracy, leaving EU member states desperately short of vaccines as public patience wears thin.
Ursula von der Leyen, EU president and her commissioners pushed for vaccine procurement and disbursement to be overseen by the EU, arguing it would advertise the bloc’s strength and solidarity while reducing the risk of vaccine rivalry among the 27 member states.
Finding another way
But last month, during an angry session of the European Parliament, she said that individual member states could have vaccinated their populations more quickly had they acted alone rather than having the EU oversee vaccine purchase and distribution. The EU was much slower to lodge purchase orders from Western drug companies than the US and Britain. Production hiccups have compounded the shortfall, prompting last week’s ban by the EU on 250,000 vaccine doses, that were produced in Italy, being shipped to Australia.
The troubled EU rollout has lagged far behind inoculation programs in Britain and the United States. Around six percent of the E.U.’s 450 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, far behind America’s 18 percent and Britain is 30 percent.
Serbia, the best performing European nation after Britain, has dosed a quarter of its population, largely thanks to its omnivorous approach and readiness to use a variety of vaccines — those developed by Western companies as well Russia’s Sputnik and China’s Sinopharm. Serbia isn’t a member of the EU.
“Whether vaccines come from China, the US or EU — we don't care as long as they're safe and we get them as soon as possible,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told Western broadcasters recently. Last week, leaders from Israel, Austria and Denmark announced an alliance to develop and produce a future generation of coronavirus vaccines. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said EU authorities are “too slow in approving vaccines.”
The deal struck by Sputnik in Italy still needs to be approved by Italian regulators before production can start and before the vaccine can be used to inoculate Italians. Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported this week that the Italian health minister Roberto Speranza favors using the jab only once Sputnik gets approval from the EU’s medicines regulator.
Russian officials have accused EU regulators of foot-dragging on the approval process for Sputnik, saying they have had months to review the safety of the drug. And they point out Sputnik has been approved by regulators in 46 countries around the world, including Argentina and the UAE. Production agreements have been struck with Brazil, China, India, and South Korea. Austria recently indicated it might be interested in a production deal, too.
Russia says it is ready to sell 50 million of the two-dose vaccine to Europe as soon as the EU go-ahead is given. The Russian developers say the jab is 91.6 percent effective against COVID-19, based on peer-reviewed findings published in February in the authoritative British medical journal The Lancet.
Science aside, some European officials and national leaders are wary of the EU accepting Sputnik, fearing that the Kremlin has a political angle in marketing it and will exploit the vaccine as a soft-power weapon to try to broaden its influence in Europe. Baltic and Polish politicians worry that the Kremlin is using the vaccine as part of a game in corona-diplomacy aimed at widening political rifts within the EU.
Ukrainian officials say Sputnik, which is banned in Ukraine, is a “hybrid weapon.” Ihor Zhovkva, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's foreign policy adviser, said an interview Monday with the Baltic News Service: “This is also a part of propaganda, a part of hybrid war – to spread this unchecked vaccine and to say that Russia is always willing to extend its helpful arm in order to treat the world while their aim is the opposite.”
The skepticism is dismissed by others. Vincenzo Trani, head of the Italian-Russian chamber of commerce, said he’s glad Italy is likely to become the first European country to produce Sputnik. “We understand that without a vaccine there is no chance to live and develop further. Geopolitics should not be a priority — people’s health and business should be priorities,” he told reporters this week.