The Slovak government has procured the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 and should start voluntary vaccinations with it in the next two weeks. A Slovak military transport aircraft brought the first batch of 200,000 doses of the Russian vaccine in the afternoon of March 1.
The decision is another propaganda coup for the Kremlin and it could further destabilise the rocky Slovak four-party coalition.
Slovakia would be the second EU country after Hungary to start vaccinating with Sputnik V, even though it has not yet been authorised by the European Medicines Agency. According to Czech press reports, Czechia is also poised to acquire the vaccine.
Both Czechia and Slovakia are currently suffering among the worst incidences of COVID-19 in the EU and are looking to step up vaccinations to reduce the severity of the pandemic. Slovakia, which won plaudits for being the first country in the world to do country-wide testing, has suffered 7,270 deaths from COVID-19 and its current death rate is the worst in the world.
The prime minister said on March 1 that the country will buy 2mn of the vaccines. Another 800,000 doses of Sputnik V should follow in March and April and another 1mn in May and June. "This will afford Slovakia the opportunity to speed up the pace of its vaccination by more than 40 per cent," he added.
Health Minister Marek Krajci has emphasised that the inoculation will be carried out strictly on a voluntary basis and will not be limited by age. Patients will have to sign a form saying they understand they are taking a non-EU vaccine.
Russia has benefited from the soft power of their much cheaper vaccine amid fierce criticism of the performance of the European Commission’s joint purchasing programme. Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Igor Matovic even personally greeted the arrival of the vaccine at Kosice airport.
“I’d like to thank Russia for its correct approach … I believe that by meeting the deadlines and promised supplies, Russia will prove that it’s a stable partner we can rely on in these hard times,” Matovic said.
The use of the Russian vaccine is also widening political divisions and the Slovak government’s decision has been criticised by the two small centre-right parties in the shaky coalition. At the same time it was backed by the two populist government parties. But the prime minister has defended his decision, arguing "it is right to buy the Russian vaccine as COVID-19 does not know anything about geopolitics".
The centre-right For the People party tried to block the procurement of the vaccine in cabinet but the prime minister, whose populist Ordinary People Party (OLaNo) controls the health ministry, simply ignored its concerns and organised the procurement through intermediaries close to the Kremlin.
Tomas Valasek, an MP from For the People who chaired the parliamentary European Affairs Committee, has left his position and resigned from the governing coalition over the procurement of Sputnik V.
Valasek said the purchase of Sputnik V was a "spit in the face" to Slovakia’s European partners and undermines public trust in vaccination. "Out of respect to the health of their people and the joint European deal, normal countries the likes of Germany and Austria chose not to do so without the approval of the European Medication Agency," he said, as reported by TASR. Russia has not yet formally applied for EMA approval.
The free market SaS governing party also said it would have been better if the vaccine had been approved by the EMA or the Slovak State Institute for Supervision of Medications, though the latter had said it did not have the capacity to do so. The vaccine was instead given an exemption by the health ministry.
Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, nominated by SaS, also criticised the way the prime minister had greeted the arrival of the vaccines. "Neither I nor anyone else from the cabinet ever had an idea to welcome the vaccines arriving here from other states. We could have done it with the American, German or British-Swedish ones, but we haven't, because it makes no sense," Korcok posted on Facebook.
President Zuzana Caputova has also put on record her preference for waiting for EMA approval. She told Politico in an interview published at the weekend “We should offer to our citizens vaccines which are both efficient, but also safe," Caputova said. "And for me, this means registration by the European Medicines Agency."
Opposition parties, which have been calling for the government's resignation over the worsening of the pandemic, have, however, backed the decision. Most opposition parties have traditionally been more pro-Russian than those in the coalition.