Some European governments turn to China, Russia for Covid-19 vaccines, sparking talk of politics

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban received a dose of China's Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine in Budapest, on Feb 28, 2021. PHOTO: VIKTOR ORBAN/FACEBOOK

LONDON - European Union officials are struggling to deflect accusations that they have been too slow in procuring coronavirus vaccines for the continent.

"We will have quite a lot more doses that will have to be administered," Dr Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the European Commission - the EU's executive body - promised earlier this week.

"The problem will, slowly but surely, change from too little supply of vaccine doses into ensuring we administer the doses we have properly and speedily."

But some EU member states have already broken ranks by turning to China and Russia for supplies. And their move threatens to open deep divisions in the Union.

Early in the pandemic, the EU's 27 member states agreed to give the Commission powers to procure vaccines for all of them. The EU now has six contracts for a total of more than 2 billion doses of vaccines, with AstraZeneca, CureVac, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sanofi-GSK.

However, the European Commission is accused of failing to secure for the continent priority in the availability of early supplies. On average, only 7.5 doses per 100 people have been administered in the EU, compared to 22 doses in the United States and 31.3 doses per 100 citizens in Britain, which is now outside the EU.

All European leaders are under pressure from their publics to secure extra supplies through other means.

Some, such as the governments of Austria and Denmark, are reassuring their electorates that, in the future, they will operate their own vaccine procurement programmes.

"We must prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent solely on the EU in the production of second-generation vaccines," said Mr Sebastian Kurz, the Chancellor of Austria.

But other governments are breaking ranks with the EU altogether.

Hungary set aside the EU consensus that any Covid-19 jab should be authorised by the European Medicines Agency by becoming the first European Union nation to authorise the use of the vaccine produced by China's Sinopharm as well as the Russia-made Sputnik V shot.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government claims that Chinese and Russian supplies would enable it to vaccinate around 250,000 extra people weekly, putting Hungary on target to immunise a quarter of its 9.7 million-strong population by the end of this month.

Neighbouring Slovakia, a smaller nation of 5.4 million, has followed suit. A military cargo plane with 200,000 of Russia's Sputnik V doses landed in the country on Monday (March 1), part of a deal which Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic claims will provide his nation with one million extra shots over the next two months.

Both Hungary and Slovakia claim that they were forced into these emergency measures.

Mr Orban, who opted to receive the Chinese vaccine, is unapologetic about breaking ranks with the EU, saying: "If we didn't have the Russian and Chinese vaccines, we would be in big trouble."

Still, their move is as much about politics as it is about health requirements.

Even before it turned to China and Russia, Hungary has not experienced a shortage of jabs: It has used only about 75 per cent of the 880,000 doses supplied to it by the EU's central distribution system.

But bashing the European Union is the preferred tactic of Mr Orban, who likes to present himself as the only defender of his country's interests.

Mr Orban is also seeking closer relations with China. By accepting the Sinopharm vaccine, he has succeeded in portraying himself as the most China-friendly European leader, at a time when EU-China relations are increasingly frosty.

Slovakia's prime minister also denies claims that his moves are politically-driven. Mr Matovic told the media: "The protection of health and lives cannot be connected with geopolitics, the virus does not choose west or east."

But it has subsequently emerged that Mr Matovic had been secretly negotiating vaccine supplies with the Russians for months, well before anyone knew of potential shortages from Western manufacturers. And his main objective in doing so was to corner some ministers in his own coalition government.

For the moment, the European Commission has chosen to ignore these moves. But matters could turn more serious for the EU should Poland, a far larger country, also decide to break ranks with the rest of Europe.

The biggest question, however, is how the European public will react to the arrival of Russian or Chinese supplies.

A recent survey in the Hungarian capital of Budapest indicates that only a quarter of Hungarians would accept a Chinese vaccine and only 43 per cent would consent to take a Russian one, compared to 84 per cent who would trust a jab developed in Western countries.

So, the Hungarian prime minister, who received a dose of China's Sinopharm vaccine on Feb 28, may end up being a member of a select minority.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.