Long wait over as first COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Ukraine from India

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine received its first batch of 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Tuesday, allowing it to launch its delayed roll-out, starting with front-line medical workers and soldiers.

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One of Europe’s poorest countries, Ukraine has lagged behind its neighbours in securing vaccines for its 41 million people, asking European Union member states for help while refusing to buy the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia.

“We will start vaccination ASAP. We need to fight COVID together,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted.

Coronavirus cases have picked up after a lull during a tight lockdown at the start of the year. The government has set up mobile hospitals in western Ukraine to cope with a sharp spike in cases in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Ukraine has registered more than 1.3 million cases and 25,309 deaths.

“Now we are urgently clearing the cargo through customs and the vaccine will immediately go to the regions,” Health Minister Maksym Stepanov wrote on Facebook.

Ukraine had planned to launch mass vaccinations in mid-February through the global COVAX programme for poorer countries but the government said the roll-out was postponed due to a delay in delivery.

Tuesday’s AstraZeneca doses were produced by the Serum Institute of India, the world largest vaccine manufacturer. Ukraine approved the vaccine this week.

The health ministry said it had agreed to buy a total of 17 million doses of Indian-made vaccines, including 15 million doses of the Novavax shot.

Stepanov last week blamed “dirty information attacks” for hampering Ukraine’s vaccine purchases after a corruption investigation was launched into the purchase of Chinese-made vaccinations through a local intermediary.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Giles Elgood