BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Publicly, the European Union has dismissed Russia’s global coronavirus vaccine supply campaign as a propaganda stunt by an undesirable regime.
Behind the scenes, the bloc is turning to Moscow’s Sputnik V shot as it tries to get its stuttering efforts to vaccinate its 450 million people back on track, EU diplomatic and official sources told Reuters.
An EU official who negotiates with vaccine makers on behalf of the bloc told Reuters that EU governments were considering launching talks with Sputnik V developers and it would take requests from four EU states to start the process.
Hungary and Slovakia have already bought the Russian shot, the Czech Republic is interested, and the EU official said Italy was considering using the country’s biggest vaccine-producing bioreactor at a ReiThera plant near Rome to make Sputnik V.
Brussels has been criticised for the bloc’s slow vaccine roll-out at a time when former member Britain is easing restrictions as its inoculation programme gathers pace. Italy is intensifying lockdowns, hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded and Germany has warned of a third wave.
The EU has signed deals with six Western vaccine makers and launched talks with two more. It has approved four vaccines so far but production glitches have slowed its inoculation campaign and some member states are seeking their own solutions.
If Sputnik V were to join the EU’s vaccine arsenal, it would be a diplomatic triumph for Russia, whose trade with the bloc has been hamstrung for years by sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine.
It would also risk dividing the bloc between those states dead set against giving Moscow any kind of win and those in favour of showing that Brussels can cooperate with the Kremlin.
A second EU official said the ReiThera plant was mentioned by Italian officials at a meeting as a possible site for producing COVID-19 vaccines made by companies other than the Italian biotech firm.
ReiThera, which is 30% owned by the state and is developing its own COVID-19 shot, declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Italy’s industry ministry declined to comment on talks about the possible use of ReiThera’s plant to make Sputnik V. She said: “We will produce all authorised vaccines wherever possible.”
A spokesman for the European Commission, which coordinates talks with vaccine makers, said the EU was not required to launch talks with Sputnik V developers, even if the bloc’s drug regulator approves the vaccine.
It was not clear whether states that have ordered Sputnik V in bilateral deals would be interested in joint EU procurement. Spokespeople for the governments in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia did not respond to requests for comment.
Negotiations with vaccine makers have typically lasted months before supply deals were agreed and the EU official said no decision had yet been made about whether to approach Sputnik V developers following internal talks on the matter.
Still, the discussions among EU governments show a remarkable change of tack over the Russian vaccine.
For months, the EU expressed doubts about Sputnik V citing a lack of data and dubbing the vaccine a foreign policy propaganda tool of the Kremlin.
On Feb. 17, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen questioned Russia’s reasons for exporting millions of doses despite a slow roll-out at home, where fewer people have been vaccinated proportionally than in the EU, based on public data.
Even last week, Charles Michel, who chairs summits of EU leaders, again cast doubt on Russia’s motives for promoting Sputnik V.
“We should not let ourselves be misled by China and Russia, both regimes with less desirable values than ours, as they organise highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines to others,” he said. “Europe will not use vaccines for propaganda purposes.”
There were no official reactions from Moscow and Beijing to Michel’s comments, though Russia has previously accused the EU of politicising the issue of COVID-19 vaccines.
However, the narrative about Sputnik within the EU had already started to shift after peer-reviewed trial data published on Feb. 2 showed it was 92% effective, higher than the Oxford University/AstraZeneca shot and close to the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
There was a new twist on Feb. 25, when Mario Draghi made his debut at an EU summit as Italy’s new prime minister.
The former European Central Bank chief, who is highly regarded in Brussels for saving the euro from its worst crisis years earlier, took an assertive stand on vaccines to quicken the pace of both inoculations and production in Europe.
He told fellow leaders the EU must buy more doses, including from outside the bloc, and expand vaccine production.
Italy, traditionally supportive of a softer stance on Moscow, is now pushing EU governments to consider Sputnik V. At a meeting of EU diplomats last Wednesday, Italy’s representative urged the EU to broaden its supply of vaccines, including with the Russian shot, an official who attended the meeting said.
A spokesman for the Italian representation to the EU declined to comment.
Asked about Sputnik V, Italy’s health minister said earlier in March: “If a vaccine works and the regulators tell us that it is safe, nationality is of little interest to me. Italy is ready to collaborate with the Russian government”.
Italy’s overtures follow Draghi’s appointment at the helm of a government supported by the right-wing League party and Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia, both of which have long called for EU sanctions on Moscow to be phased out.
EU officials have said, however, that doses are desperately needed now and Sputnik V could come too late to be useful for the bloc when deliveries of the 1.3 billion shots it has already ordered are expected to accelerate later this year.
‘IT’S RUSSIAN IT’S BAD’
Still, any EU reluctance to launch talks with Sputnik V developers could weaken if the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approves the vaccine and if member states agree to make the shot at plants in their territories.
On March 4, the EMA launched a rolling review of Sputnik V, the first step in a process that could lead to its EU-wide approval. An EU official familiar with the process said a decision on possible authorisation could come as early as May.
On the production front, Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund last week signed an agreement with Swiss-based pharmaceutical company Adienne to produce small amounts of Sputnik V in Italy, though Rome was not involved in the arrangement.
But if Rome agrees a deal with ReiThera, it would be the most significant endorsement of Sputnik V yet, eclipsing agreements Moscow has sealed with other countries, including Brazil, Argentina and India.
Berlin has also expressed interest in producing Sputnik V in Germany, while RDIF has said it was discussing production deals with several EU countries.
RDIF declined to comment on specific deals with companies to manufacture Sputnik V within the EU, or on any possible change of stance by the bloc towards the vaccine.
Back in Brussels, one EU diplomat said that if the EMA approves Sputnik V, the bloc would likely split between those members in favour of cooperating with Russia and those against.
Ties between Russia and the West, already at post-Cold War lows, have come under renewed pressure recently over the treatment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose jailing prompted Brussels and Washington to impose sanctions on Moscow.
“We will fall into the usual divide: ‘it’s Russian it’s bad’ versus ‘well, come on, we need to work together with those people’,” the diplomat said.
“There are some who will not want to give (Russia) this propaganda victory, and there are others who will be seeing this as an opportunity to actually show that we are cooperating.”
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio and John Chalmers in Brussels, Emilio Parodi in Milan and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni and Giuseppe Fonte in Rome; Editing by David Clarke