Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn has said he is prepared to push ahead without the rest of the bloc to purchase doses of the Russian Sputnik V virus vaccine after approval from European regulators and would be entitled to do so, according to the European Commission.
“The EU Commission said yesterday that it will not sign contracts (for Sputnik) like for other manufacturers — such as BioNTech, for example — so I said… we will hold bilateral talks with Russia,” Spahn told the public broadcaster WDR on Thursday (8 April).
The minister did not indicate when the talks would take place but said they would initially cover “when supplies could arrive”.
“To really make a difference in our current situation, the delivery would have to come in the next two to four, five months — otherwise we’ll have more than enough vaccines,” Spahn said, adding he was seeking a “binding commitment on which amounts specifically could reach Germany after regulatory approval and when”.
Germany’s comparatively slow vaccine rollout has been thrown into sharp focus as it grapples with a fierce third wave of the pandemic.
Only 13% of the population has received its first of two doses, as the country reported more than 20,000 new infections on Thursday and more than 300 daily deaths.
Germany has until now coordinated its vaccine buying with the EU.
But the southern state of Bavaria said on Wednesday it had signed a letter of intent to buy up to 2.5 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine if it is approved by the European medicines agency (EMA).
As well as importing the vaccine from Russia, a production facility is also to be set up by the pharmaceutical company R-Pharm in the German town of Illertissen.
Asked about the news during a press conference on Thursday (8 April), chief Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said that the fact that member states may decide to purchase vaccines from other manufacturers “does not mean the end of the European strategy”.
Mamer pointed out that this has already been the case with other countries, citing Hungary.
Another Commission spokesperson added that member states are “entitled to negotiate or to sign contracts with these vaccine manufacturers who are not covered by our portfolio,” such as the Sputnik vaccine.
Mamer said that the EU is still finalising negotiations with two other companies and a “vast amount of vaccines which are sufficient to vaccinate the whole European population.”
“The question at this stage is less one of extra doses of vaccines than ensuring that that we actually are able to administer the vaccines get them delivered and administered to people,” he said.
Europe ‘better off’ with Sputnik
Speaking during a press conference on Thursday (8 April), centre-right MEP Peter Liese said that the Sputnik vaccine should be used in Europe once it gains EMA approval.
“In an ideal world, these vaccine producers would live up to their obligation, and we would vaccinate the people without Sputnik. But I see that we can speed up the vaccination in Europe with Sputnik,” he said, concluding that “Europe will be probably in a better situation with Sputnik than without”.
He added that the vaccine should not be declined because of political reasons provided the EMA gives it the green light.
“Is it really right not to import a vaccine where EMA says it’s safe and efficient? I think we need to be prepared.”
His remarks run contrary to those recently made by internal market Commissioner Thierry Breton, head of the EU executive’s vaccine task force, who told TF1 television that “we have absolutely no need of Sputnik V”.
Calling Breton’s statement “courageous”, Liese said that he does not consider it possible to make such a statement in case of unforeseen future supply issues and the need to speed up vaccination.
“That’s why I think that [the Commission] needs to go to Russia and say, how much can you deliver at what time?” he said, adding that the EU should not rule out importing the vaccine rather than producing it within the bloc.
However, in reference to Bavaria, Liese specified that he is “strongly against” individual regions starting negotiations with producers, but criticised the Commission’s stance on the vaccine.
“Unfortunately the position of the Commission is not clear. It is not completely excluding the negotiations, but they don’t have a clear position,” he said.
The EMA has launched a rolling review of Sputnik V but no deadline is scheduled for its final market authorisation.
Russia registered Sputnik V in August ahead of large-scale clinical trials, prompting concern among experts over the fast-track process.
But later reviews have been largely positive, with the medical journal the Lancet publishing results showing it was safe and more than 90% effective.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]