Europe Shuns Russian Covid-19 Vaccines as Ukraine War Continues

April 1, 2022 - 3 minutes

In the last two years, Russian Covid-19 vaccine makers had a tough time penetrating the European market with their flagship vaccine, Sputnik V. This year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has likely dashed Sputnik V’s chances of reaching Europe anytime soon.

Just months after the Covid-19 pandemic began, Russia was the first country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine in late 2020: Sputnik V. The vaccine — made using adenoviral vectors like AstraZeneca’s vaccine — was given emergency authorization in more than 70 countries, including the EU member states Hungary and Slovakia. The fanfare gained Russia’s life sciences industry prestige worldwide. 

However, Russian vaccine makers faced multiple troubles distributing the vaccine domestically and abroad, including vaccine hesitancy and supply chain delays. The US and many European countries already had a growing supply of Covid-19 vaccines from Western pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, the EMA began a rolling review of Sputnik V last year, but numerous snags in the process, including a lack of transparency around clinical results, pushed back any potential approval.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added to the mire of complications for Sputnik V, without considering the war’s huge human and economic costs. Sputnik V’s backer, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), was one of the first targets of Western sanctions. And manufacturing and supply contracts are being impacted by the removal of some Russian banks from the international financial system SWIFT. 

According to Pavel Havlicek, Research Fellow at Czech thinktank the Association for International Affairs (AMO), the European reception of Sputnik V was already lukewarm even before the war.

We have overcome the initial stage where there was an insufficient amount of vaccines for everybody,” noted Havlicek. “Now we are entering into a new area in which it’s more about the hesitancy of the citizens inside of the European Union.” 

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In Slovakia, for example, Sputnik V was greenlit last year. However, low uptake from the population and volatile domestic politics led Slovakia to return many of the doses it purchased from Russia.

Meanwhile, the EU’s fastest adopter of Sputnik V, Hungary, is reconsidering its position. Russia is a central, controversial topic in the country’s current election season, and favoring Sputnik V can carry political repercussions for pro-Russian leaders.

Even in this context and in countries such as Serbia, which had pro-Russian demonstrations, it is very difficult to defend this [pro-Russian] position, and we see that across the board from extreme forces in the European Parliament,” said Havlicek. 

Outside of Europe, the supplies of the Russian vaccine to many developing countries via a collaboration with UNICEF are conditional on Sputnik V’s approval by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the WHO recently hit obstacles in carrying out inspections due to the war and a potential approval appears a long way off.

A similar pattern is present in the EMA’s regulatory review of Sputnik V, which is now in limbo. “The Sputnik V vaccine remains evaluated under rolling review, although there is currently no active review cycle,” said a representative from the EMA in an email. The EMA declined to comment further on the process.

In addition to Sputnik V’s regulatory woes, the ongoing war in Ukraine is hastening Europe’s process of cutting ties with Russia across many sectors. In the current climate, Russia’s vaccines are less likely than ever to reach the market.

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I think this will be the final nail in the coffin of big investment projects and common partnerships with Russia on multiple accounts,” concluded Havlicek.

Cover image via Anastasiia Slynko

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