What you need to know about Germany’s controversial bid to buy Russia’s Sputnik vaccine

Germany has sparked controversy after launching talks with Russia about purchasing doses of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine without waiting for coordinated EU action.

What you need to know about Germany's controversial bid to buy Russia's Sputnik vaccine
A nurse in Moscow prepares the Sputnik vaccine. Photo: DPA

The creators of Sputnik confirmed in a message on their Twitter feed on Thursday evening that “discussions” had begun.

They said German government officials were in talks with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which financed the development of the vaccine, for an advance purchase contract for Sputnik V doses.

Will Germany buy the vaccine without EU support?

Amid divisions in the bloc over Sputnik, Health Minister Jens Spahn had earlier said Germany was prepared to go it alone without the other 26 members if it meant the country could speed up its inoculation campaign.

“The EU Commission said yesterday that it will not sign contracts (for Sputnik) like for other manufacturers — such as BioNTech, for example — so I said… we will hold bilateral talks with Russia,” Spahn told public broadcaster WDR.

READ ALSO: German vaccine boss praises Russian vaccine as ‘clever’

“To really make a difference in our current situation, the delivery would have to come in the next two to four, five months — otherwise we’ll have more than enough vaccines,” Spahn said, stressing that any purchases remain contingent on European regulatory approval of the Sputnik jab.

He said Germany was seeking a “binding commitment on which amounts specifically could reach Germany after regulatory approval and when”.

Why is Germany eager to purchase the vaccine?

Germany has until now coordinated its vaccine buying with the EU.

Since inoculations began in late December, Germany has deployed vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna.

A fourth, from Johnson & Johnson, is expected to be rolled out across the bloc in the coming weeks.

But the southern German state of Bavaria said Wednesday it had signed a letter of intent to buy up to 2.5 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine if it is approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

READ ALSO: Bavaria becomes first German state to reserve Russia’s Sputnik vaccine

And on Thursday the thinly populated east German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the hotly disputed Russia-Germany gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 is nearing completion, pre-ordered one million Sputnik doses.

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine arrives at an airport in South America. Photo: Federico PARRA / AFP

“We’re currently in a phase in which we’re highly dependent on too few manufacturers,” the state’s health minister Harry Glawe was quoted by DPA news agency as saying.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has previously said that Germany “should use any vaccine that has been approved” by the EMA, including the Sputnik vaccine.

Germany’s comparatively slow vaccine rollout has become a lightning rod issue as it grapples with a fierce third wave of the pandemic.

Only 13 percent of the population has received the first of two doses, as the country reported more than 20,000 new infections on Thursday and more than 300 deaths in 24 hours.

However, on Tuesday family doctor practices around the country began offering the vaccination, leading Germany to offer a record 656,000 jabs within one day on Thursday.

Why is the move to buy the vaccine so controversial?

But any agreement with Russia could be controversial as the two countries are at loggerheads over issues including repeated Russian cyberattacks against the West, the Kremlin’s treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and escalating tensions on the Ukraine border.

The EMA has launched a rolling review of Sputnik V, which could become the first non-Western coronavirus vaccine approved for use across the 27-nation bloc.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday warned Germany that the Sputnik vaccine would come with strings attached.

“Russia is using it as a tool to increase its political influence,” Kuleba told Germany’s Bild newspaper.

He said he suspected that any Sputnik purchases would be used as propaganda by the Russian government to suggest that “even a country as strong as Germany can’t solve its problems without Russia”.

READ ALSO: Germany set to finish controversial Russian pipeline despite US protest

Russia has also faced criticism in some Western countries, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused Moscow and China of using their vaccines to gain influence abroad.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, long sceptical about Sputnik, said he doubted a Russian or Chinese vaccine could be deployed quickly enough to meaningfully help the campaign.

“Can they add to Europe’s portfolio of vaccines and add to our summer 2021 immunity target? I’m afraid the answer is no,” he said.

Russia registered Sputnik V in August ahead of large-scale clinical trials, prompting concern among experts over the fast-track process.

But later reviews have been largely positive, with the medical journal The Lancet publishing results showing it to be safe and more than 90 percent effective.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.