The Chase for Europe’s Unwanted Astra Shots Starts in Ukraine

As safety concerns prompt western European countries to limit the use of AstraZeneca Plc’s coronavirus shot, Ukraine is leading a charge from the continent’s east to scoop up unwanted doses.

The government in Kyiv, which has struggled to secure vaccine supplies, says it’s been talking to the European Union about potential purchases for months. With Denmark banning the use of the Astra jab altogether this week, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania have joined the pursuit.

Eastern Europe has been the global epicenter for Covid-19 deaths and infections in recent weeks -- leaving the region desperate for more vaccine doses. The inoculation program in Ukraine is among Europe’s slowest, making people there more inclined to look past worries over blood clots and accept the Astra jab.

“Nobody’s going to refuse a vaccine,” Ukrainian Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said this week in an interview in his office. “The benefits from all approved vaccines far outweigh the risk of side effects.”

The Chase for Europe’s Unwanted Astra Shots Starts in Ukraine

While Ukraine has signed contracts for 32 million doses, less than a million shots have arrived so far -- from AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. With Astra deliveries delayed as infections soar in India, where the producer is located, Ukraine has vaccinated just 433,000 of its 42 million population.

Russia’s Sputnik V jab, which is being used by EU member Hungary, has been rejected, with tensions between the governments in Kyiv and Moscow flaring again recently.

The health situation, meanwhile, is becoming more urgent: Daily new cases hit a record of more than 20,000 this month.

The Chase for Europe’s Unwanted Astra Shots Starts in Ukraine

No offers have emerged from EU countries selling unwanted shots, according to Stepanov. “Every country cares exclusively for its own citizens to the exclusion of everyone else,” he said.

There could be other problems. A March survey found that while almost half the population wants to be vaccinated, more than two-thirds would refuse the Astra jab -- for which less than 0.25% of Ukrainians have reported side effects. More than two-fifths of people don’t know how to register for vaccination.

Stepanov says the shortage of doses -- not hesitancy about their safety -- is the main reason for the slow pace of inoculation. Ukraine is in talks to secure another 16 million vaccine doses this year and wants to administer them all by year-end -- stepping up the pace to 5 million-6 million doses a month by using open-air stadiums, he said.

Speed will be vital as hospitals in big cities reach capacity and people bristle at prolonged lockdown measures. As of Thursday, 187,731 jabs had been given in April, though 117,000 doses produced by Pfizer Inc arrived the next day as part of the World Health Organization-led Covax initiative.

“We’re waiting for the vaccines,” Stepanov said. “We’re fully prepared.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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