Russian attempts to expand Sputnik’s vaccine are stirring controversy in Europe


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – When the Prime Minister of Slovakia welcomed a military plane carrying 200,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine from Russia in March, he proudly posed for photos on the tarmac in front of boxes filled with what he expected would be his country’s medical salvation.

Slovakia at the time had the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19, and the arrival of the Russian vaccine was a rare ray of hope. For Russia, it has offered big advantages as well: a small but symbolically significant new market for its product in the European Union, which has so far refused to register the vaccine and urged member states to delay applications until approval is granted.

But the efforts of the Slovak leader, Igor Matovi, quickly blew up in his face, costing him his job and nearly toppling the entire government – just three months after it adopted a new security strategy rooted in absolute support for NATO and warned Russia.

The deeply pro-Western Slovak government, torn between its commitment to adhering to European rules and desperation to get out of the health crisis, has been in crisis for weeks.

It is still unclear whether Sputnik fThe first recorded vaccine in the world is the medical achievement announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer, but it has already proven remarkably effective in spreading chaos and division in Europe.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Mr. Putin recently about possible renditions of Sputnik, which Macron’s foreign minister mocked as a “propaganda tool”. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Curtis was angered by European regulators’ slow approval of Sputnik, and he clashed with Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, over the bloc’s vaccination program, which so far includes only Western vaccines.

But Slovakia provides the most realistic example of how this might happen Russian Vaccine Diplomacy It has side effects that can be highly toxic.

The decision of Mr. Matovi, the Slovak Prime Minister at the time, to order two million doses of Sputnik V, put the country at odds with the European Union and put one of the most pro-Western governments in Eastern Europe on the brink of collapse as a junior partner. In a split ruling coalition, angry at importing Sputnik, he defected.

Instead of applause, Mr. Matovic faced a revolt from his ministers, who accused him of striking a deal with Russia behind their backs, defecting from the European bloc and surrendering to what his foreign minister, Ivan Korcock, described as a Russian “mixed war instrument” casting doubts on working with the European Union. . “

“I thought people would be thankful for bringing Sputnik to Slovakia,” Mr. Matovi recalls in a recent interview. Instead, we faced a political crisis, and I became an enemy of the people. “

Doubts about Russia’s intentions with its pollen run deep across the former communist lands of eastern and central Europe.

Prime Minister of Lithuania Ingrida Simonet He said in a tweet In February, Mr. Putin offered Sputnik the fifth to the world as a “divide and rule weapon”. Poland has said it is considering purchasing Chinese vaccines, despite similar concerns about this, but it will certainly not request Sputnik V.

A recent survey by the research group Globsec found that among those who want to be vaccinated, only 1 percent of Poles, Romanians and 2 percent of Lithuanians would choose Sputnik over American and European brands. Even in Hungary, the only member of the European Union begins to vaccinate its citizens with the Russian productOnly 4 percent want Sputnik V.

But in Slovakia, about 15 percent of those willing to vaccinate expressed a preference for the Russian vaccine, which gave Moscow an opportunity to break out of the quarantine imposed by deep suspicion elsewhere.

Russia’s targeting of Slovakia as a place to expand the head of Sputnik’s narrow bridge into Europe was evident long before Mr. Matovi decided to request a vaccine.

Peter Koles, director of the Slovak Security Policy Institute, which tracks Russian disinformation, said this was evident from the transformation message pumped out by a large number of anti-establishment media outlets in Slovakia that routinely reflects Russia’s stance toward the world and questions its position. The pro-western government of our country.

For most of the past year, before anyone produced a vaccine, he said, those outlets had been critical of vaccination, promoting wild conspiracy theories about plans to inject nanoscale chips into humans and create mutations.

“Suddenly, when Putin announced Sputnik, the narrative changed,” said Mr. Coles. While still skeptical of Western vaccines, the pro-Russian media has switched in one step from denouncing all vaccinations to praising Sputnik V as Slovakia’s savior.

Andrei Danko, the former president of the Slovak Parliament known for his friendly views of Russia, wrote A. Video on Facebook In January he said he was ready to help broker a deal with Moscow to extradite Sputnik.

His tone of voice attracted many ordinary Slovaks generally friendly to Russia, particularly anti-establishment sentiments.

Martin Sematana, a former Bratislava health ministry official, said he was amazed at the number of his friends who wanted the Russian vaccine and says, “Juggle the system, use Sputnik.”

Matovic, the prime minister at the time of Mr. Danko’s appeal, said he was well aware that the Russian vaccine had not been authorized for use in Europe, but decided that “the only rule in an epidemic is health and life.”

He said the idea to order Sputnik came to him after neighboring Hungary bought it. He said he called the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, who helped him reach out to Russia, which was eager to cut a deal.

When Mr. Matovi took the idea of ​​importing Sputnik into his cabinet in February, he was asked to wait for the European Medicines Agency to give the green light.

He kept up the pressure regardless, deciding that while the government as a whole must follow European rules, his health minister, who has since resigned, has the right to order Sputnik to face the health emergency.

Martin Kloss, the State Department’s foreign minister, said he had heard of the handover only two hours before his arrival. “Sputnik is a vaccine that saves lives, but the problem is: How did it get to Slovakia?” He said in an interview.

The hype that followed Sputnik’s arrival was fast and furious. To keep his fragile coalition government afloat, Matovi agreed on March 30 to step down as leader and swap jobs with his finance minister, a humiliating cut.

Mr Kloss said Russia may not have intended to topple the government, but after years of trying to break European unity over sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, “the collapse of the government will be a very successful story for them.”

at Last week’s reportThe European Union’s foreign service said Russia’s drive to promote Sputnik abroad was aimed at “sowing distrust” in Europe’s drug regulator and stoking divisions.

In response, the Russian state investment agency leading the Sputnik export campaign expressed regret that the vaccine, which it described as a “vaccine for all humanity”, fell victim to “unfortunate daily media attacks.” On Friday, after Brazil raised concerns about Sputnik and complained about insufficient data, Moscow-based vaccine developer, The Aesthetic Institute, issued an angry statement complaining that “immoral forces are constantly attacking Sputnik V for competitive and political reasons”.

The disturbing arguments in Slovakia about the vaccine came to a head in April when the country’s Medicines Regulatory Agency claimed that Matovi had fallen in Russian bait and switch. She said the vaccine doses sent to Slovakia at a cost of around $ 2 million differed from Sputnik V, which was reviewed positively in a February-reviewed article in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet.

The Slovakian claim, denounced by Moscow as “vandalism”, casts doubt on Sputnik’s main selling point: a proven efficacy rate of over 90 percent against Covid-19. The Lancet gave the vaccine 91.6 percent in February, and since then Russian scientists have claimed the “real world” rate of 97.6 percent.

But the main problem with Sputnik was never whether it worked – most experts believe it does – but Russia’s frequent failure to follow procedures and provide all the data foreign regulators need to assess safety. The regulator in Slovakia released its damned statement not because it discovered any specific problems with Sputnik but “due to a lack of data from the manufacturer, inconsistency in dosage forms and an inability to compare batches used in different studies and countries.”

The 200,000 doses that Russia provided in March were all still unused at a pharmaceutical company in eastern Slovakia as of last week. But Matovic said Russia had already returned the money that Slovakia had paid.

Pavol Babus, a political analyst in Bratislava, said Matovi was “never pro-Russian” but “very naive”. “He was caught in the trap of Russian propaganda,” added Mr. Babous, who was desperate for a way to slow the epidemic and raise its declining ratings.

But Matovic ridiculed accusations that Moscow used him to promote its geopolitical agenda. He said that the Russians “wanted to help, but instead of thanking them we said, ‘You are stupid, and you are fooling people all over the world.’”

Most of the errors, Matovic said, were the State Institute for Drug Control, which confirmed that the Sputnik V batches sent by Russia to Slovakia “did not have the same characteristics and characteristics” as the fifth edition reviewed by The Lancet. He said that this “is a very incorrect political statement.”

Susanna Batova, director of the institute, who has received death threats from aggressive Sputnik fans, declined to give an interview, saying she did not want to pour oil on the fire.

The head of the Biomedical Research Center, which has run a series of 14 tests in Slovakia on the Russian vaccine, said she had no concerns about whether Sputnik V worked, but was alarmed by Russia’s lack of transparency.

While the potential side effects of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been publicly documented in detail, the head of the center, Silvia Pasturikova, said, “We know nothing about the side effects of Sputnik.”

She said the Russian vaccine had passed all of her team’s tests but failed to get approval from the government regulatory authority because more than three-quarters of the documents required to meet European standards were either not submitted or incomplete.

“We are part of the European family and we have to accept the family rules,” said Ms. Pastorikova.

Monica Bronczock Contributed to reporting from Brussels and Christina Hamarova from Bratislava.

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