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Sputnik vaccine developers hit out at EU commissioner over ‘bias’

Moscow has accused Brussels of “bias” against its Covid-19 vaccine, after the EU’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said the bloc had no need to use the jab.

Speaking to Russia’s parliament on Monday, deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko said Sputnik V had “faced a campaign of misinformation, discrimination, and demonstrative disregard by European institutions”.

The exchange of barbs came as the Kremlin-controlled developers of Sputnik V said increasing numbers of EU member states have begun discussions over acquiring or manufacturing the jab, which is still yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Relations between Moscow and Brussels have sunk to historic lows following the jailing of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny last month, and the humiliation of the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on a visit to Moscow shortly after, during which three diplomats from EU states were ordered to leave the country.

A close aide of Breton accused Sputnik’s makers of “pressuring EU officials” and claimed the vaccine would not be available in large quantities until at least next year.

“We have absolutely no need of Sputnik V,” Breton, who is head of the EU’s vaccine distribution initiative, told TF1 television on Sunday evening.

The use of Sputnik V has become a controversial issue in the EU, after Hungary and Slovakia issued emergency approval for the jab, bypassing the European Medicines Agency. A number of EU states are exploring other vaccine supply options because of a first-quarter squeeze, partly because of a big delivery shortfall for the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.

Breton said the EU needed to give “priority to vaccines made on European soil” and said the Russians were having production problems for Sputnik V, which the EU could help with in the second quarter if required. 

“Commissioner [Thierry Breton] is clearly biased against the Sputnik V vaccine just because it is Russian,” Sputnik V’s developers said in response in a post on Twitter. “We hope that facts will help [him] to have less hubris and be less biased.”

“Biases lead to failures. And Breton’s failures are clear to many people in EU,” they added.

But Terence Zakka, Breton’s communication adviser, hit back in a subtweet of the Sputnik vaccine’s Twitter post.

“Sputnik V pressuring EU officials,” Zakka tweeted. “The EU already has a full portfolio of safe vaccines and production is ramping up. If EMA approves the Sputnik V vaccines, doses will not be available at large scale before 2022 at the earliest. It’s a fact — not a bias.”

Grushko, who is responsible for relations with European countries, told the Russian parliament attempts to prevent the use of Sputnik were continuing and statements had been made “that cannot be interpreted otherwise than purely politicised”.

Moscow has sought to promote exports of Sputnik V to EU countries over the past two months, alongside striking supply deals with dozens of governments around the world.

Sputnik V’s developers said Breton’s comments would pressure member states to approve the Russian jab individually and not wait for approval from the central European Medicines Agency.

“[Breton] believes all is great with EU vaccinations and Sputnik V is not needed. Are Europeans happy with Breton’s vaccination approach?” the tweet said.

Breton said the acute shortages of vaccine doses in the EU would soon be over. “We won’t lack for vaccines, they will be there very soon,” he said. “Today we clearly have in our grasp the capacity to deliver 300m-350m doses between now and the end of June . . . We have the possibility of reaching immunity at the level of the continent.” 

The priority, he added, was to “produce these vaccines en masse and administer them en masse”.

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