PRAGUE (Reuters) -Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on Wednesday installed his fourth health minister during the COVID-19 pandemic as a lagging vaccination campaign heightened pressure to use Russia’s Sputnik dose.
Babis has gone back-and-forth on potentially buying the Sputnik V vaccine prior to European Union approval, an issue other EU nations are pondering due to shortages of registered vaccines.
President Milos Zeman, who backs closer Russian and Chinese ties, had sought the sacking of Jan Blatny for his opposition to Sputnik.
Zeman reiterated his request to buy Russian and Chinese vaccines when he appointed new Health Minister Petr Arenberger on Wednesday at Babis’s request.
However, Babis, whose government is dependent on Zeman’s political allies, denied the ministerial change was to clear the Russian vaccine’s use and said he would wait for European Medicines Agency (EMA) approval.
“I want to stress (the change) is not about Sputnik,” he said at a news conference with Arenberger.
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Arenberger, a Prague hospital director, has said he would not oppose using Sputnik as part of a clinical trial.
Czech Republic has been among the slowest in the EU to roll out vaccinations.
Two other EU countries, Hungary and Slovakia, have ordered Sputnik and Austria may follow suit. But only Hungary has so far used it, while Slovakia’s purchase sparked a government row that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Igor Matovic.
Blatny had joined the cabinet in October just as infections started spiking. He has faced overflowing hospitals and tried to balance what was among the world’s highest per capita infection rates in March with pressure to keep factories running.
Central Europe has been hard hit this year after going through the initial wave with relatively few deaths or cases.
The Czech Republic’s death toll has climbed to over 27,000 and the country of 10.7 million has had the highest amount of deaths per capita in the world during the pandemic, according to the Our World in Data website.
Blatny’s dismissal came after Babis reprimanded him for a lack of support for new COVID-19 medicines, among other issues.
He was also criticised for loosening lockdown measures weeks before Christmas, resulting in a resurgence in infections.
Arenberger takes over as cases are falling and hospitals gain some free capacity. From Monday, the government plans to ease some restrictions by reopening some schools and allowing free travel around the country.
(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Jan Lopatka and Andrew Cawthorne)