A medical worker holds a syringe with the Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) Covid-19 vaccine in his hand.

Alexander Reka | TASS | Getty Images

While the European Union struggles to push coronavirus vaccine rollout in the block of 27, Russia’s Covid shot is proving enticing to its friends in Eastern Europe, creating yet another potential rift in the region.

The Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia have all expressed an interest in the procurement and use of the Russian vaccine “Sputnik V”, which could undermine an EU-wide approach to the approval and administration of coronavirus vaccines.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Sunday that his country could use the Sputnik V vaccine without the approval of the EU Medicines Agency, the European Medicines Agency.

It comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz received a call last Friday in which they discussed “possible deliveries of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine to Austria and its possible joint production,” the Kremlin said and found that Austria had initiated the call. Austria has so far stated that it would not bypass the EMA when approving the vaccine.

Hungary, a country within the EU that has close ties to Brussels and whose leader Viktor Orban is considered a close ally of Putin, has shown no such hesitation. It was the first European country to bypass the EMA to approve and purchase the Sputnik V vaccine in January.

According to the Moscow Times, the country expects 2 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine to be administered over the next three months. Hungary also approved China’s Sinopharm vaccine last month, which again goes against the grain when it comes to EU vaccine approval.

On Monday, Slovakia became the second European country to announce that it had purchased the Sputnik V vaccine, which secured 2 million doses of the shot. However, the Slovak Minister of Health said it will not be given immediately as it still needs the green light from the country’s national drug regulator.

A Slovak Army plane carrying doses of the Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus (Covid-19) stands on the tarmac when it arrives from Moscow at Kosice International Airport, Slovakia, on March 1, 2021.

PETER LAZAR | AFP | Getty Images

What’s happening?

The linchpin for the Russian vaccine is widespread frustration with the slow adoption of EU vaccines. The bloc’s decision to jointly buy vaccines has hampered it, and its orders came later than in other countries, including the UK and US

Manufacturing problems and bureaucracy – and hesitation in some countries about vaccines – were also stumbling blocks to adoption.

Nonetheless, the move by some Eastern European countries to unilaterally support Russia’s vaccine will exacerbate problems in Brussels as it undermines the EU’s desire for a unified approach and a sense of equity in the distribution of vaccines.

There were also concerns specifically about Sputnik V, although subsequent data have confirmed the vaccine’s effectiveness and credibility.

The vaccine was approved by the Russian health authority in August last year, ahead of the completion of clinical trials, causing skepticism among experts that it may not meet strict safety and efficacy standards. Some experts argued that the Kremlin is keen to win the race to develop a Covid vaccine.

However, an interim analysis of the Phase 3 clinical trials with 20 participants published in The Lancet in early February found the vaccine to be 91.6% effective against symptomatic Covid-19 infections.

In a companion article in the Lancet, Ian Jones, Professor of Virology at the University of Reading, England noted that “the development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticized for undue urgency. However, the result reported here is clear and scientific. The principle of vaccination is demonstrated which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of Covid-19. “

However, the Gamaleya National Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, which developed the vaccine, has not yet submitted an application to the EMA for marketing authorization for the vaccine, the EU Medicines Agency said in early February.

A woman receives the second component of the Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) COVID-19 vaccine.

Valentin Sprinchak | TASS | Getty Images

RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund that backed the development of Sputnik V, announced to CNBC on Monday that it had requested the EU Drugs Agency for an ongoing vaccine review in mid-February. However, the EMA has not confirmed this and CNBC has asked the EMA for a comment.

Political theater

The European Commission already warned Hungary, albeit indirectly, against the use of the Russian vaccine before the EMA approved it. As early as November, a spokesman for the Commission told Reuters: “The question is whether a Member State would like to give its citizens a vaccine that has not been tested by the EMA.” Public confidence in vaccination could be damaged.

“This is where the approval process and confidence in vaccines meet. When our citizens start questioning the safety of a vaccine, it will be much more difficult to get a sufficient proportion of vaccines if it has not undergone rigorous scientific evaluation. to demonstrate its safety and effectiveness to the population, “said the spokesman, reported Reuters.

However, the decision of Hungary to proceed alone with the vaccine against Sputnik V does not surprise the EU observers. The country’s right-wing leader, Viktor Orban – a “strong man” like Russia’s Putin – has had several disputes with the EU executive in recent years, particularly over signs of the government’s increasing authoritarianism. The erosion of the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press in Hungary is of particular concern to the EU. However, the Hungarian government rejects such criticism.

Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC on Monday that Hungary’s actions were “part of Orban’s campaign to promote a” decadent, declining EU “and the future of Hungary in the east with Russia and China.” said it had been going on for some time.

Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and chief analyst for Russia at Verisk Maplecroft, described the geopolitics surrounding Sputnik V and the EU as “political theater more than anything”.

“For Hungary and Austria there is an element of foreign policy signaling here, as both Kurz and Orban generally had a closer relationship with Putin than their European counterparts. In the case of the Czech Republic, the impetus seems to have been more towards the government “Take action” in the face of a rapid surge in the number of cases in February, “he said.

There are also doubts as to whether Russia will be able to mass-produce and ship its Sputnik V vaccine to Europe.

“While the Sputnik vaccine appears to be an effective vaccine in principle, Russia is having great difficulty getting mass production right … enough Sputnik vaccine is still not being made,” Gressel said. McDowell noted that “the question is whether Sputnik V can make a noticeable difference, given regulatory issues and existing logistical issues, and whether the vaccine can be made in sufficient numbers either by Russian manufacturers or under license.”