The government of Ukraine banned Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine on February 8, despite having no access to vaccines of its own and a mounting death toll.
Ukraine has been locked in a bitter rivalry since Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and banned Russian language TV stations, cut transport links such as flights between Moscow and Kyiv.
Now Kyiv has added Sputnik V to the list of unwelcome Russian products, despite the recent rapid rehabilitation of the vaccine’s reputation after a peer-reviewed paper in the UK’s respected The Lancet magazine confirmed the drug is safe and has a 90% efficacy rate.
Moreover, the EU has done an about-face on Sputnik as it faces a dearth of vaccinations to protect its population. Sputnik V was submitted for registration by the EU medical regulator in the middle of January and is expected to be approved for use soon, according to a press release earlier this week from the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) that has funded the vaccine’s development.
The government resolution, published on a government website on February 8, bans medical products from “aggressor states," a designation Ukraine has applied to Russia since 2015.
Ukraine's pro-Western leadership has repeatedly rejected calls from pro-Moscow politicians to approve Russia's Sputnik V jab, denouncing the vaccine as a geopolitical tool.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been more ambivalent about using Sputnik V, suggesting that in the interests of public health it should not matter who makes the vaccine if it saves lives. However, the question of sourcing anything from Russia is a sensitive political topic. Zelenskiy was criticised earlier this month for a photo of him working out in a gym where much of the equipment was of Russian manufacture.
As countries around the world start to roll out their mass vaccination programmes, Ukraine has yet to receive a single dose from anywhere.
The Ministry of Health said in January Kyiv expects to get its first 8mn doses by the second quarter of this year under the United Nations' Covax programme and up to 5mn doses of the Chinese CoronaVac jab. It has also secured 12mn doses of vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax, but that is still not enough to meet the country's needs. With a population of 43mn (other estimates put it lower at 35mn), the country is unlikely to be able to complete a vaccination programme this year.
Zelenskiy said this week that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, would begin the first phase of the vaccination campaign later this month.
Russia started its mass roll-out in December and reported this week that 2.2mn people had received at least one of the two shots, and 1.7mn people, or 1% of the population, had received both. Russia is now inoculating over 100,000 people a day.
Russia hopes to have inoculated all those in the high-risk groups, including OAPs, health workers, teachers and journalists, by the end of February.
RDIF has been actively signing supply deals with other countries and has registered the vaccine in over 20 countries as of February 11. It has also offered to supply Ukraine if requested.
Sputnik V has meanwhile been rolled out in the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
Ukraine has recorded more than 1.2mn coronavirus (COVID-19) cases and more than 24,000 deaths.