Germany’s health minister has said he wants to hold talks with Moscow about obtaining supplies of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, in an effort to boost the country’s inoculation campaign.
Jens Spahn said Germany would have no hesitation in acting independently of the European Union, indicating his frustration over the bloc’s refusal to engage with the Russian jab’s manufacturers, but he stressed that the vaccine would only be used if it was approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
The announcement signals a significant change in Germany’s stance on vaccine procurement, which until now has been to stress a unified approach by EU members.
Spahn has faced increasing pressure to speed up Germany’s sluggish vaccine programme amid criticism that it has suffered from the European commission’s lack of urgency, even as he said the programme had stepped up a pace in recent days, boosted by the introduction of vaccinating in GP practices.
He tweeted on Thursday that a new daily record had been reached, with 656,000 doses given on Wednesday. So far 13.8% of Germans have received at least one dose, and 5.7% are fully inoculated.
But setbacks including restrictions placed on who is able to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – now being given only to people aged over 60 – and a lack of supplies to Germany even of the German-made BioNTech/Pfizer jab, have forced the government into trying at least to be seen to take a more proactive approach.
Spahn said he was reacting to the commission’s announcement that it would not sign a contract with the Sputnik V producers, as it had done with other manufacturers.
“As a result, I explained to the EU health ministers’ council that Germany would be holding bilateral talks with Russia, in the first instance, to find out when and what amounts [of the vaccine] we could get,” Spahn told the broadcaster WDR. He stressed that Russia would “need to provide data” if Sputnik V was to receive the necessary approval.
Hours earlier the head of the southern state of Bavaria, Markus Söder, attracted widespread criticism after announcing that he had signed a “pre-contract” with Sputnik V’s producers. On condition that Sputnik passed the relevant safety checks, Bavaria would expect to receive 2.5m doses of it in July, to be produced by the company R-Pharm in the Bavarian town of Illertissen, he said.
Stiko, the German vaccine commission, was among those to criticise what it referred to as Söder’s “go it alone” approach. However, Stiko’s head, Thomas Mertens, said the data published so far on Sputnik V “looks very good”. He added: “If the vaccine is tested and given approval, I would personally not have anything against it.”
That a Russian-made vaccine is now at the forefront of the debate as to how Germany tackles the virus as it struggles to cope with a third wave is seen as an extraordinary turnaround from just a few months ago when, while news of the emergence of a Russian vaccine made headline news, there were no official plans to use it.
It was viewed with scepticism, not least because its use on Russian citizens was approved by authorities there in August before it had completed the necessary phase 3 study.
According to RDIF, the Russian state’s direct investment fund responsible for the vaccine’s marketing, 58 countries have approved Sputnik V’s use. In the EU, Hungary and Slovakia have both received orders, despite the lack of EMA approval, though not without controversy. The Czech Republic and Austria have also signalled their interest in it, as have autonomous regions in Spain and Italy.
Talk of its more widespread application in a core EU member like Germany would be gamechanging. There have been tensions between Germany and Russia over issues ranging from Ukraine to Syria to the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as well as faltering progress on the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
Malte Thiessen, a historian of immunisation, told German media that the vaccine was seen as a huge opportunity in Russia for it to polish up its image abroad. “Just the name Sputnik is a first-class piece of propaganda,” he said. Sputnik 1 was the name of the first satellite, which the Soviet Union launched in 1957 to the shock of the western world.
Thiessen said scepticism in western parts of the EU towards the Russian vaccine had a clear historical correlation dating back to the cold war. “The poisoning of Navalny is also a reason for some citizens not to want to be injected with a product from Russia,” he said.
The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has described Sputnik V as more “a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy” than a medical asset.
But positive experiences in Germany with Soviet-era vaccines have been used by some decision-makers to quell suspicion over Sputnik V.
Reiner Haseloff, the head of the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt, talked recently of the success of a Soviet vaccine against polio in the 1960s in stamping out the disease in the communist-run GDR. There, citizens were required to receive 17 separate vaccines before reaching adulthood, most of which had their origins in the Soviet Union.
Michael Kretschmer, the head of the state of Saxony, also once part of the GDR, said it was preferable for the government to negotiate with Sputnik V’s producers for the whole of Germany.
“Every available vaccine has to be used, on condition that they’re safe and receive approval. We would all be vaccinating far more if there were sufficient doses available,” he told Die Zeit. “Russia is a great land of science and I don’t have the faintest doubt that scientists there are capable of producing an effective vaccine.”