EU Covid vaccine row: Officials upset Russia over Sputnik jab

EU embroiled in fresh vaccine row – this time with Russia – after medical regulator warned using its Sputnik V jab is ‘like playing Russian roulette’

  • Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, head of the European Medicines Agency’s board, urged EU countries not to grant emergency approval to Russia’s Sputnik vaccine 
  • She compared using the jab without EU approval to ‘playing Russian roulette’ 
  • The remark sparked fury in Russia, as the vaccine-maker demanded an apology 
  • It is just the latest row between the EU and a vaccine-maker, after ministers accused AstraZeneca of playing favourites and sending their jabs to the UK 

The EU has embroiled itself in yet another row with a vaccine-maker – this time in Russia – after a senior official at the bloc’s medical regulator warned using its Sputnik V jab is ‘like playing Russian roulette’.

Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, an Austrian doctor and head of the European Medicines Agency’s board, made the remark on Monday as she urged member states to wait for the EU’s sign-off on the Sputnik V jab before rolling it out.

But her remark caused fury at The Gamaleya Center, which makes the Sputnik jab, which demanded an apology – saying she has no right to undermine confidence in their jab, and that her remarks cast doubt on the EMA’s impartiality.

It comes just weeks after the EU got into a bitter spat with British-Swedish vaccine maker AstraZeneca – accusing the company of shipping doses meant for the continent to the UK, meaning their vaccine orders fell short.

The EU has been looking to Russia for Covid vaccines to help boost its slow roll-out, which has seen it fall well behind the likes of the UK 

EU health officials are now embroiled in a row with makers of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine after warning countries not to grant emergency approval

AstraZeneca vehemently denied the allegations, saying EU and UK supply chains are separate and Europe’s orders had been delayed because they placed them three months later than Britain.

Those shortfalls have left Europe desperately short on jabs, meaning its vaccine roll-out is currently one of the slowest in the world.

Just six per cent of its population has been given at least one dose of vaccine, compared to the UK’s 30 per cent.

As a result, the EU has been forced to look elsewhere for vaccines – including begging extra doses from the US and looking to approve Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in a major PR coup for Moscow.

The EMA is currently carrying out a safety review of the Sputnik V jab, and is due to publish its opinion in the coming weeks. 

But a number of countries, largely in eastern Europe, have grown tired of waiting and granted emergency approval – including the likes of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Austria, Ms Wirthumer-Hoche’s home nation, is also thought to be looking at a similar move after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz met with Russian officials last week – prompting her to issue a statement on Monday warning against it.

Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, head of the European Medicines Agency board, likened using Russia’s jab to ‘playing Russian roulette’

‘It’s somewhat comparable to Russian roulette,’ she warned, adding that: ‘I would strongly advise against a national emergency authorisation.

‘We could have Sputnik V on the market in future, when we’ve examined the necessary data.’

But makers of the Sputnik V jab hit back, tweeting: ‘We demand a public apology from EMA’s Christa Wirthumer-Hoche 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. Sputnik V is approved by 46 nations. 

‘The EMA did not allow such statements about any other vaccine. Such comments are inappropriate and undermine credibility of EMA and its review process. Vaccines and EMA should be above and beyond politics. 

‘Europeans deserve an unbiased review as was undertaken by 46 other countries. 

‘After postponing Sputnik V review for months, EMA does not have the right to undermine credibility of 46 other regulators that reviewed all of the necessary data.’

Amid its scramble for jabs, the EU has now resorted to blocking shipments destined for other countries using export laws that were hastily approved in January amid its row with AstraZeneca.

Last week, Italy became the first to use the measures – with Brussels’ approval – barring a shipment of 250,000 vaccines from leaving to Australia, a move that Canberra branded ‘frustrating’.

And on Monday, Ursula von der Leyen – who was in charge of procuring Europe’s vaccines – warned that the move was not ‘a one-off’.

She said that AstraZeneca had delivered fewer than 10 per cent of the vaccines promised in the first quarter of the year, and while supplies were due to increase drastically from April, she added that second quarter orders will also fall short.

That is why Italy found it necessary to block the vaccine shipment, she suggested, while adding that the move could be used elsewhere.

The EU has received some 50million doses of vaccine to date, having approved three jabs – Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca, and Moderna.

A fourth jab, made by Johnson & Johnson, is expected to be approved this week.

While supply bottlenecks have been partly responsible for the EU’s delays, scaremongering around the AstraZeneca jab has also led to people refusing to take it, further delaying the process.

In its scramble for jabs the EU has resorted to blocking shipments bound for other countries, with Ursula von der Leyen warning the move is not a ‘one off’ 

German ministers anonymously briefed the media that AstraZeneca’s jab barely works in older people, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling it ‘quasi-ineffective’.

Newspapers have also been awash with reports that the jab causes increased side-effects compared to Pfizer’s jab as medical regulators in Germany, France and other countries rushed to restrict its use.

But as a slew of real-world data from Scotland showed the jab is effective in older people and is safe to use, European leaders have been forced to execute a series of embarrassing U-turns and have resorted to begging their people to take it.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told the Mail on Sunday that the EU was now ‘scrabbling around to grab hold of anything they can get their hands on’.

‘This vaccine debacle exposes what the EU is all about,’ he said. ‘It’s an insular, protectionist organisation that actually believes it is the most important place on earth.

‘They simply cannot accept that they have screwed up. First of all, they blame the British. Then they accuse Australia. Now they are going cap in hand to America and essentially saying, “You’ve got spare vaccines, give them to us.” It’s absolutely pathetic.’

The EU has turned its attention to Washington who it hopes will give them millions of spare doses of AstraZeneca, the Financial Times reported over the weekend.

Joe Biden and Ms von der Leyen spoke on phone call on Friday to discuss their joint efforts in the pandemic.

Following that conversation, Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, was tasked with working with Jeffrey Zients, the US Covid tsar, on vaccine supply chains.

Brussels, which hopes for stronger ties with the White House with Biden in charge, is reliant upon the States for some of the raw materials needed to make jabs.

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