In vaccine geopolitics, a great game played with Ukrainians' health

Ukraine has now also become a focal point in the geopolitics of coronavirus vaccines.
Ukraine has now also become a focal point in the geopolitics of coronavirus vaccines.PHOTO: NYTIMES

KIEV (NYTIMES) - Ms Lyudmyla Boiko's family has already had a harrowing, and lethal, encounter with the coronavirus.

Several family members fell ill, and her daughter-in-law's mother died. Now, Ms Boiko, a 61-year-old employee of a botanical garden in eastern Ukraine, is deeply worried about her husband, who has underlying health problems but has not yet caught the virus. She is pinning her hopes on a vaccine.

"I don't care where the vaccine is produced as long as I'm sure it is safe," Ms Boiko said. "Safety should be the first priority."

But in Ukraine, it is hardly the only consideration. The country, already caught up in the broader tug-of-war between East and West in European politics, has now also become a focal point in the geopolitics of coronavirus vaccines - so far, to Ukraine's detriment.

First, talks with Pfizer and other Western vaccine makers to obtain early shipments collapsed after the Trump administration banned vaccine exports. Now, unless the incoming Biden administration steps in, the earliest commercial purchases of Western vaccines will not be delivered before late 2021.

Not surprisingly, Ukraine's plight has caught the eye of Russia's state-controlled news outlets, which have highlighted the failure of Ukraine's Western allies to step up in a moment of need - and offering Russia's vaccine as an alternative.

Ukraine's leaders, who have raised worries about the safety and efficacy of the Russian vaccine and would, in any event, almost literally die before accepting help from Russia, their blood enemy, turned to China, buying its first vaccine in a hurried negotiation in the final two weeks of December.

"Russia, as always, uses this in its hybrid war, as an information weapon," Mr Maksym Stepanov, Ukraine's health minister, said in a telephone interview of the country's effort to inoculate its population. "The issue of vaccines is politicised."

The Russian taunting has outraged Ukrainian public health experts, though there is little they can do to counter it without an alternative vaccine supply.

"Russia is pursuing an active policy of aggression, even with the vaccines," said Mr Oleksandr Linchevsky, a former deputy health minister. "It's in Russia's political interest that Ukraine receive the vaccines from elsewhere as late as possible," because it wants to fill the gap with its own vaccine.

Ukraine, with a population of 42 million, is scheduled to receive 8 million vaccine doses under the Covax programme that supplies low- and middle-income countries that might not otherwise be able to gain access to vaccines. But those doses are not due to arrive until at least March. Negotiations for Western shipments later in the year are continuing, Mr Stepanov said.

Before President Donald Trump's executive order banning vaccine exports from the United States, Ukraine had been in talks with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to speed up delivery. Although the negotiations are continuing, the delivery times are being pushed back.

Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has barely contained his outrage at his country winding up far back in the line for vaccines despite its precarious geopolitical position.

Russia has for six years been backing a separatist war in two eastern provinces of Ukraine while trying to drive a wedge between Kyiv and its Western allies. Vaccine politics are playing into the Kremlin's hand.

"We are supposed to be like political acrobats to manage to get into a priority list" for vaccines, Mr Zelenskiy said in an interview last month. The American export ban, he said, "put Ukraine at the end of the line." In an end-of-the-year statement to Ukrainians, Mr Zelenskiy wrote bitterly that, unfortunately, "the richest" countries would have vaccines first.

In late December, Ukraine hastened talks with Sinovac Biotech, a Chinese supplier, announcing on New Year's Eve an order for 1.9 million doses, for delivery in early February. That is hardly enough, but still a geopolitical victory for China, providing a measure of relief when Western countries have looked the other way.

The vaccine situation has spawned an information war in Ukraine, fanned by Russia. Television stations broadcasting pro-Russian views and politicians aligned with Russia have accused Mr Zelenskiy of allowing Ukrainians to die out of a stubborn refusal to take medicine from an enemy.

"The Ukrainian government wants to leave Ukrainians without the right for medical protection" by not accepting the Russian vaccine, called Sputnik V, for use in Ukraine, Mr Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician favouring closer ties with Russia, said in a television interview.

Pro-Russian media outlets have reported with much fanfare that Biolik, a pharmaceutical company based in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, has appealed to health authorities for a license to manufacture Sputnik V, despite officials saying they have no plans to approve it.

The false promise of relief is a cruel twist of the propaganda knife for Ukrainians who are tired, as are people everywhere, of worrying about their loved ones.

The rate of coronavirus infection in the country has slowed in recent weeks but still averages more than 7,000 new cases per day. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 19,712 Ukrainians have died from the virus. The country announced a lockdown starting this weekend.

"I understand the conflict around the Russian vaccine," said Ms Boiko, who worries about her husband, who has a heart ailment. "But I wish it were over soon."