Croatia, Slovakia launch ‘Operation Sputnik’

Brussels starts feeling the pressure and now questions Russia's vaccine diplomacy. How far could individual countries go with Sputnik? [Shutterstock/ LadyRhino]

The Croatian government is laying the ground for the purchase of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V while Slovakia will start a similar discussion on Thursday (18 February) despite the fact that Moscow’s vaccines has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). At the same time, Brussels is feeling the pressure and is questioning Russia’s vaccine diplomacy. How far could individual countries go with Sputnik?

The news in Zagreb broke on Tuesday evening and has been confirmed to EURACTIV’s media partner Jutarnji list by the Russian Ambassador to Croatia Andrej Nesterenko, as well as sources from Plenković’s government. 

At EU level, only Hungary has approved both the Chinese and Russian COVID-19 vaccines so far and the Czech Republic is mulling the purchase.

“Croatia is trying to protect its national interests. At this phase, we need to get the vaccine before it is approved by the EMA. That way we can avoid dependency on internal distribution within the EU. It is important to emphasise that we are not violating any EU rule or regulation in the process,” a source said.

According to the source, Zagreb is currently negotiating with Moscow on the shipment of at least one million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine in the coming weeks. Even if the vaccine does not get EMA’s greenlight by then, the vaccines would still be shipped.

The plan is to wait for the EU’s ‘thumbs-up’ while the vaccines are being shipped and begin rolling out vaccinations the minute it gets approved. Were the EMA to prolong the process, Croatia’s national agency, HALMED, is looking into legal ways to start vaccinations before EMA approval. 

Nesterenko did not want to confirm nor deny the reports, but confirmed that Russia is ready to ship the purchase of million doses as soon as formally requested.

“According to my knowledge, it is possible for us to ship the vaccine in 24 hours. We even have special planes at our disposal, if needed. But we are still waiting for the agency’s clearance and the official request from Zagreb” the Ambassador added.

In Bratislava, the Slovak government starts discussions on Thursday regarding the purchase and use of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

“I don’t see any reason why we cannot use it here. If we had Sputnik now, millions of people could get vaccinated,” said Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič. 

The idea is also backed by Health Minister Marek Krejčí, and by some members of the anti-pandemic commission established by the government.  

Slovakia currently uses vaccines from Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, which have all been approved by the EMA .

Statements by some government officials suggest Slovakia may use the vaccine before it is approved by the EU, although doubts regarding Russia’s capacity to produce the needed amounts remain.

EU Commission chief Ursula Von der Leyen questioned on Wednesday Moscow’s vaccine diplomacy.

“We still wonder why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating its own people,” she said at a news conference.

Earlier this week, Commission sources told EURACTIV.com that for the time being, the Russian vaccine is not really on their radar.

“In order to be part of the EU vaccination programme, manufacturers need to have production capacity in EU territory to exactly make sure we have independence,” the sources added, saying Sputnik V are currently “all produced in Russia”.

The same sources stressed that the EU countries that will make use of the Russian vaccine before EMA’s approval will do so “with their own responsibility”.

(Michal Hudec | EURACTIV.sk, Tea Trubić Macan | EURACTIV.hr – Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos)

Russia’s vaccine and the political side-effects for Europe

As EU-Russia relations hit a new low over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Moscow’s Sputnik V vaccine is seen as a window of opportunity for Europe to make up for the delayed vaccine deliveries. But the Russian jab may also creates additional headaches across EU capitals.

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