BRATISLAVA (Reuters) -Slovakia’s new prime minister sought to defuse a row with Russia over a COVID-19 vaccine shipment on Friday, saying it was in Slovakia’s interest to secure the Russian Sputnik V vaccine after Moscow angrily accused it of contract violations.
Slovakia ordered 2 million doses of Sputnik V from Russia, of which 200,000 arrived on March 1. The deal caused an uproar, having been brokered by the then Prime Minister Igor Matovic without informing his coalition partners, who opposed using Sputnik V in Slovakia for lacking EU regulator approval.
Matovic was forced to leave his post, but the government’s troubles grew worse when a Slovak watchdog said this week it did not receive sufficient data to asses the Sputnik V doses in the first shipment and said they differed from those reviewed by international scientists and regulators.
In response, Moscow accused the regulator of spreading “fake news” and called on Slovakia to return the doses delivered so far. [L1N2M10M6]
Eduard Heger, who took over as prime minister from Matovic last week, tried to get the deal back on track in a statement published by his office on Friday.
“Prime Minister Eduard Heger has eminent interest in mass vaccination of citizens, a condition for attaining collective immunity,” Heger’s office said in a statement.
“He also sees the interest of citizens getting inoculated with the Sputnik V vaccine. Therefore, it is the state’s obligation to secure this vaccine in the required quantity and quality.”
The Kremlin said on Friday that the row would not undermine confidence in the vaccine and others could use it if Slovakia did not want to.
Slovakia, which has a population of 5.5 million, ranked among the world’s worst-hit by the pandemic before an improvement in the past weeks.
The Slovak health ministry has authorised the use of Sputnik V as an unregistered drug, but asked national drug agency SUKL to evaluate the vaccine before rolling it out under its inoculation programme.
As of April 8, over 810,000 people had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to official data.
However the watchdog said this week it lacked sufficient data to make any conclusions on the Russian vaccine. SUKL chief Zuzana Batova told Reuters on Friday Russia had failed to supply data including on trials and production but that the regulator cannot prevent the government from using it in its vaccination programme given the health ministry’s approval.
Matovic, who took over Heger’s job as finance minister, travelled on Friday to Hungary, the only EU country using Sputnik V so far. During his visit, he said Hungary would help Slovakia to do more laboratory tests on any batches received from Russia.
(Reporting by Robert Muller in Prague, Radoslav Stoklasa in Bratislava; additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest and Gleb Stolyarov in MoscowEditing by Jan Lopatka and Raissa Kasolowsky)