President: We can buy Russian COVID-19 vaccines if available

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President Kersti Kaljulaid and President of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda.
President Kersti Kaljulaid and President of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda. Source: Lithuanian MFA

President Kersti Kaljlulaid says that the Russian-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine could in principle be used in Estonia, pending European Union approval and sufficient supply of the vaccine. Criticizing the speed of the European Union's vaccine procurement process so far, the president's stance somewhat reconfigures what had earlier been Estonia's official position on the matter, though the prime minister also recently said the vaccine could be procured.

Former prime minister Jüri Ratas (Center) had said late last year that Estonia would not be purchasing the vaccine, which has hit controversy over the perceived political capital to be had when nations procure it.

Current prime minister, Kaja Kallas (Reform), took the same line as the president did Wednesday, namely that if the European Commissioner green-lighted Sputnik V, there was no other reason why Estonia could not buy it.

On a visit to Lithuania Wednesday, the Estonian president said that the vaccine being produced in the Russian Federation was not sufficient reason not to buy it, and that Estonia's stance on Sputnik V is apolitical, though it would be down to the European Commission to declare the vaccine safe for use first.

Kaljulaid said: "It is the position of the Estonian government that if Sputnik V or [similarly controversial Chinese-made vaccine Sinovac] are registered in Europe, we'll administer them to our people in a completely political, manner once they have been declared safe for use.

President: Sputnik V not political from Estonian side but still being used for propaganda purposes

At the same time, the president also said that a "communication trap" had enveloped the vaccine and its promotion.

"Do not fall into this strategic communication trap into which many have walked," she added, speaking at a press conference in Vilnius, also noting a potential catch-22 situation with hype around Sputnik V doses obscuring the fact that demand would likely outstrip current supply even if it did get the go-ahead.

"There is no 'sea' of Sputnik vaccines out there that we're just not taking. More Sputnik V vaccines have been sold in Europe than have been produced. We don't know how these deliveries will be realized, but discussions about a solution we're not using are inaccurate - there is actually no such solution," the president, who is set to get vaccinated herself ahead of an official trip to Afghanistan next month, went on.

Sputnik V supplies lagging behind what the hype might suggest

U.K.-Swedish firm AstraZeneca is to produce more vaccines this month than Russia has done with Sputnik V in its entirety to date, the president said.

The other two firms whose doses have so far arrived in Estonia are U.S. company Moderna, and U.S.-German firm Pfizer/BioNTech.

Estonia does not make any coronavirus vaccines of its own, but must procure them from outside. This in turn must occur via the European Commission's procurement process, which has several approved doses, though Sputnik V is not among them.

EU member state Hungary unilaterally bought Sputnik V doses from Russia, amid criticisms of the snail's pace at which the union's procurement process has been running so far. Hungary was recently joined by neighboring Slovakia, also in the EU.

San Marino, a principality technically not in the EU but completely surrounded by the territory of member state Italy, has also bought Sputnik V.

President: European Commission vaccine delivery speeds unsatisfactory

Kersti Kaljulaid called the speed of vaccine delivery to Estonia unsatisfactory so far, reiterating that communication problems on vaccines regarding the EU, Russia and other "third" states – most likely referring to the U.K. – have arisen.

AstraZeneca is one of the three companies Estonia has procured from so far, though the president called cuts in supply to around half that scheduled, at 900,000 doses, "disappointing". As noted this curtailed supply still outstrips Sputnik V's, it is reported.

Experts were divided on the efficacy of AstraZeneca doses as early as last summer, well before the first vaccines by any manufacturer started arriving in Estonia (which happened at Christmas time), with critics pointing to a lack of sufficient testing; as in many other EU nations, an upper age limit of 70 was implemented on AstraZeneca doses in Estonia a month ago.

Kiik had not expected Sputnik V deliveries, Ratas had ruled them out

Health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) said last month that supplies of Sputnik V were not expected in the near future, due to approval issues, while foreign minister Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) criticized EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell's seeming interest in Sputnik V while on a much-panned, Potёmkin-esque visit to Russia just under a month ago.

Jüri Ratas had said Estonia would not procure Sputnik V doses, also under fire for a claimed lack of testing data, in November 2020, saying he trusted the European Commission's judgment on the matter.

One individual vaccine recipient who did vote with their feet was Russian diplomat Yuri Gribkov, who, scheduled to leave Estonia in late January, took advantage of Estonia's vaccine program days before he departed (and jumped the line ahead of domestic recipients in the process) rather than receive the Sputnik V dose when back in Russia.

Other vaccine irregularities include a Tartu doctor who tried to sell spare vaccine doses to fellow Rotary Club members, and the secretary general at the social affairs ministry – Tanel Kiik's employer – who reportedly also jumped the queue.

Sputnik V is according to some reports more popular outside Russia than inside. Nearly 40 countries worldwide have procured the drug, chiefly in Asia and Latin America.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) – the EU agency which evaluates medicinal products – announced Thursday that it will start a rolling review of Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac), which is not only a potential precursor to green-lighting the product's use within the union, but is also a faster procedure than the standard application process, the EMA says.

This piece was updated to include the EMA's announcement that it would be conducting a rolling review of Sputnik V.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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