Northerners keen on Russian vaccine

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UPDATED: It could almost be a form of “Corona détente” or “Covid diplomacy:” Calls going out in Northern Norway for Norwegian health officials to directly negotiate acquisition of Russia’s new Corona vaccine are being heard by Health Minister Bent Høie. Not only could more Norwegians be vaccinated, proponents claim, a vaccine agreement could improve currently strained relations between Norway and its northernmost neighbour.

The Russian Sputnik-V vaccine could help accelerate Norway’s vaccination program and improve neighbourly relations, contend proponents living near the Russian border.  PHOTO: Wikipedia/Mos.ru

“We’ve had cross-border cooperation on health issues for more than 30 years,” Lars Georg Fordal of the Barents Secretariat told newspaper Klassekampen on Wednesday. “There’s no reason that Norway shouldn’t take contact with Russia to secure us some of their vaccine.”

The Russians were actually the very first to develop a vaccine as the Corona crisis raged last year. Called Sputnik-V, it’s received good reviews in leading international medical journals and is one of only three vaccines developed so far to boast test results indicating it’s more than 90 percent effective. It’s reportedly been sold to nearly 40 countries worldwide including Argentina, Egypt, Hungary and Serbia.

Vaccination sluggish so far
The Norwegian government has been relying on vaccine supplied through EU agreements and distributed with help from Sweden. Deliveries have been slower than expected, though, and Norway’s Conservatives-led government has been criticized for not dealing directly with producers themselves.

Fordal and local mayor Pål Gabrielsen of the Socialist Left party (SV) think the government could negotiate vaccine purchases directly with Russian officials and the makers of Sputnik-V.

There’s long been lots of border-area cooperation between Norway and Russia. Now both local and national officials are urging Corona vaccine cooperation, too. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

“There’s a tradition for neighbours helping one another,” Gabrielsen told Klassekampen, referring like Fordal to how residents and officials in Kirkenes and elsewhere in Sør-Varanger have long promoted “people to people” cooperation policies in the border area. Buying some Russian vaccine could both accelerate Norway’s state vaccination program and reduce tensions that otherwise have risen on a national basis.

“We have connections with regional and central Russian authorities and could gladly help,” Gabrielsen tsaid. Fordal agrees. The Barents Secretariat, committed to promoting good relations in the Far North and financed through the Foreign Ministry, is convinced a vaccine cooperation with Russia would strengthen ties between Norway and Russia.

Marit Arnstad, who leads the Center Party’s delegation in Parliament, is among those noting how countries like Great Britain and Israel that have dealt directly with countries producing vaccines have been among the most successful in getting their people vaccinated. “I also think Norway should try to secure this (the Russian) vaccine,” Arnstad told Klassekampen. “The Russians want to apply to the EU for approval and Norway’s own pharmaceutical authorities should also screen it themselves, not just wait for the EU’s action.”

Objections
Others, including a vaccine researcher at the University of Oslo, have raised objections, however. “We have put our confidence in the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to evaluate the safety and quality of the vaccines,” researcher Gunnveig Frødeland told Klassekampen.”We should rely on the same process being used for Sputnik as all the others.” Health Minister Høie seems to agree but told news service NTB on that he’s open to using the Russian vaccine in Norway.

Frødeland noted that the Russians “have ended up with a vaccine that has good effect. There’s very good reason for the Russians to send an application to the EMA.” She won’t recommend the vaccine before it wins EMA approval, but given the information available already, “when an application comes, it will be handled seriously in Europe.”

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Thursday that Russian authorities claim they can supply the EU with the Sputik vaccine from this summer, even though its own national vaccination program is proceeding more slowly than expected. The vaccine has been available since last summer but NRK noted how Russian TV has reported that just 4 million of Russia’s roughly 145 million people have been vaccinated so far.

Russian authorities are nonethless promising that tens of millions of Sputnik doses can be available beginning this summer. NRK reported that the EU is beginning a process to approve the Russian vaccine, meaning it could become available in Norway without direct negotiations between Russian and Norwegian authorities. Høie also confirmed to news service NTB on Thursday that Norway may be able to start using the Russian vaccine, but that it wasn’t likely to be available before summer.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund