Ukraine is wrong (and right) to prohibit the Russian COVID-19 vaccine

Iván Farías Pelcastre,
Ph.D. in Political Science and International Studies,
University of Birmingham,
United Kingdom

Alona Anokhina,
MA in Society and Politics,
Graduate School for Social Research,

Deniz Yaralı,
MA in International Relations,
University of Warsaw,

At the beginning of the year, the Economist Intelligence Unit issued a report estimating how long it would take for all countries to achieve widespread coverage of the COVID-19 vaccination in their corresponding territories. Unsurprisingly, the United States and most European countries are expected to achieve such coverage by late 2021. Meanwhile, most countries in the Western Hemisphere, along with Australia, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, Japan, and the Gulf countries, will probably reach it by mid-2022. In Europe, the very few exceptions to this predicted timeline include Belarus and the Balkan countries, which will only catch up with their neighbours by late 2022. Yet, the country that truly stands out on the map, for the wrong reasons, is Ukraine. The eighth-most populated country in Europe, with more than 40 million people, will only achieve widespread vaccine coverage by early 2023.

This unfortunate circumstance puts Ukraine in the same group as Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan, Venezuela, and most African countries. And it adds up to the already despairing fact that Ukraine is one of the most affected countries by the COVID-19 pandemic, registering 1.3 million confirmed cases in its territory, including more than 24,000 deaths, as of early February 2021. In such a dire state of affairs, it could be easily expected that the Ukrainian government would be eager to do anything to secure the health of its population. Yet, in late January 2021, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill which prohibited the use of Sputnik V, the COVID-19 vaccine developed in Russia, which was the first one in the world to be authorised by a public health body for mass use and distribution. Paradoxically, the very same bill expressed the parliament’s intention to speed up the approval of all other vaccines. Soon after, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that mass vaccination would begin on 1st of February 2021. To this day, however, Ukraine is yet to receive a single dose of any vaccine.

There are various reasons for which none of the other vaccines are available in Ukraine. First and foremost, its Parliament and Ministry of Health both reacted very late. Pavel Kovtonyuk, former Deputy Minister of Health, for instance, confirmed that, as late as December 2020, Ukraine had not conducted any effective negotiations for acquiring any of the vaccines available. Only negligence or complacency towards the global health crisis can account for this delay. Second, the peculiarities of the Ukrainian budget. For a cash-strapped economy, such as that of Ukraine, the case for not investing in vaccines until they are developed and approved, is strong. As Volodymyr Kurpita, former head of the Center for Public Health, stated: “it is very difficult for state money to buy a product that does not yet exist and explain to the Ministry of Finance why it should allocate money for vaccines that are only being developed. The Ukrainian budget does not allow paying for the future result of research, which may help in some way, but maybe not”.

In an effort to maintain its staunch position against Sputnik V, and to fill the gap left by the lack of any other vaccine, the Ukrainian government agreed to purchase the one produced by the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech. Puzzlingly, this vaccine has shown varied efficacy results, which go from 50.65% effectiveness in its Brazil trial on over 12,000 medical workers, to 91.25% in its Turkey trial –questionably based on a preliminary analysis of only 29 cases. Still, Ukraine signed a contract to buy around a million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, although the first batches are planned to arrive only from late February onward. Meanwhile, many questions about the vaccination process still remain unanswered. For instance, Zelensky has stated that the vaccines will be free. At the same time, he expressed his support for the development of a market for privately funded vaccination, so that “those Ukrainians who have the means” can get vaccinated in private hospitals. A rhetoric as contradictory as that of the Parliament.

The Ukrainian government’s geopolitical concerns, and its own inability to choose and maintain an evidence-based course of action, appear to have taken precedence over the very pressing public health concerns raised by the pandemic. Opting not to buy a vaccine only because of its origin, at a time when dozens of states around the world are carrying out mass vaccinations, has made Ukraine lag far behind almost everyone else. Moreover, unlike their authorities, the Ukrainian public appears to be less concerned about the origin of the vaccine. As a 61-year-old from eastern Ukraine commented: “I don’t care where the vaccine is produced as long as I’m sure it is safe. Safety should be the first priority”.

The state of war in which Ukraine has been with Russia, since the occupation of Crimea, however, prevents the country from even considering buying the Sputnik V vaccine. As Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former director of Ukraine’s national security council, stated: the Russian vaccine “is so politicized it cannot be used. There is no green lighting here. It would be impossible to do it.” So, most likely, Ukraine will continue turning its back on a vaccine already proven to be effective, to the detriment of its people’s health and lives.


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