Austria in talks to buy a million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria is in talks with Russia to buy a million doses of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, which has yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s office said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: The Russian Sputnik V coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine is displayed in the Republic of San Marino, March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini

Conservative leader Kurz is under fire from opposition parties because his government did not buy as many coronavirus vaccines as it could have under the European Union’s collective purchasing scheme.

“There must be no geopolitical blinkers regarding vaccines,” Kurz said in a statement issued by his office, adding that Austria is in talks with Russia and Moscow has offered to sell it a million doses as of April. “The only thing that must count is whether the vaccine is effective and safe.”

The statement noted that EMA has launched a rolling review of Sputnik V, but it did not repeat Kurz’s previous comments that Austria would only use the vaccine if it is cleared by the regulator for the 27-nation EU.

Sputnik V has been approved for use in 58 countries, most recently Mali, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which promotes the vaccine abroad, said on Tuesday.

Kurz has blamed an Austrian official on the EU’s vaccination steering board, where extra doses not bought up by member states are then redistributed, for deciding on purchases without consulting Vienna, and says he only recently learned of how the steering board system worked. The official has been replaced.

Kurz has also complained that vaccines are distributed unevenly within the EU because of that system.

After a fitful start to the EU’s vaccination campaign which has left the bloc lagging other countries such as Britain, some member states and regions have already bought or are considering buying Russian or Chinese shots.

Two EU countries, Hungary and Slovakia, have purchased Sputnik V doses, although only Hungary has started using them. In Slovakia the issue is so controversial that it sparked a political crisis.

The Italian region of Campania has signed an agreement to buy the vaccine but only after EMA approval.

The two-shot Sputnik V vaccine’s efficacy was initially greeted with scepticism by some Western scientists after Russia approved it in August last year without waiting for the results of full clinical trials.

However, scientists said it was almost 92% effective in fighting COVID-19, based on peer-reviewed late-stage trial results published in The Lancet medical journal in February.

Kurz has long sought to maintain good relations with Russia, saying he wants to serve as a bridge between east and west.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Catherine Evans