UPDATE 1-Minister says "absolutely calm" as Ukraine probes COVID-19 vaccine deal

(Adds health minister, procurement agency comments, details)

KYIV, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Ukraine’s Health Minister Maksym Stepanov told Reuters on Wednesday the government had been open and transparent about procuring COVID-19 vaccines, after investigators began probing whether the government bought vaccines at inflated prices.

His ministry agreed in December to buy 1.9 million doses of the vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech at $18 per dose via a Ukrainian intermediary, the pharmaceutical firm Lekhim.

Anti-corruption campaigners said the deal was expensive and that the government could have obtained vaccines more cheaply from other sources.

“We conduct our activities as openly as possible and express ourselves as openly as possible about each manufacturer. Vaccine prices vary,” Stepanov said in a phone interview, adding he could not comment directly on the probe.

He said COVID-19 vaccine prices quoted by different manufacturers had ranged between $7 and $34 and that the price for the Sinovac dose had been suggested by Medical Procurement of Ukraine (MPU), an independent state agency.

“Therefore, I am absolutely calm,” he said.

Reuters also reported this week that Lekhim’s shipment of vaccines could face delays and that the company had requested a change to how the efficacy of its vaccine was measured.

Sinovac’s vaccine efficacy rates have varied in testing across several countries. The variable data has raised questions about whether Ukraine would approve Sinovac. Lekhim’s agreement with the Ukrainian government stipulated that the vaccine must be at least 70% effective against the COVID-19 disease.

“As of today, we are not going to amend the contract and reduce the efficacy. The vaccine can be registered in Ukraine, but this does not mean that we will buy,” Stepanov said.

The ministry had insisted on the 70% efficacy rate, he said.

In a statement to Reuters, the MPU said it was ready to provide all the necessary information about the deal, including the “formation of a price offer by the counterparty.”


Ukraine’s national anti-corruption bureau (NABU) opened an investigation into vaccine purchases in February, Maksym Gryshchyuk, the acting head of Ukraine’s special anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, told a briefing earlier on Wednesday.

Lekhim declined comment. Sinovac did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Gryshchyuk said he could not mention names or details for legal reasons.

NABU chief Artem Sytnyk, speaking alongside Gryshchyuk, promised to “carry out all investigations as quickly as possible”.

One of Europe’s poorest countries, Ukraine has lagged behind others in starting its vaccination programme against COVID-19, which has infected more than 1.25 million Ukrainians and killed 23,934 as of Feb. 10.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has appealed to European Union countries for help to secure vaccines, and his government said on Wednesday it would receive 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca from Poland. (Reporting by Ilya Zhegulev, Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets; additional reporting by Roxanne Liu in Beijing; writing by Matthias Williams, editing by Timothy Heritage and Toby Chopra)