Austria: When will Russia’s Sputnik V be available?

Austria is has signed a deal with Russia to import the Sputnik V vaccine. When will the vaccine be available in Austria?

Austria: When will Russia’s Sputnik V be available?
Photo: Federico PARRA / AFP

Austria on April 19th announced it had sealed a deal to purchase one million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. 

Austria importing the Russian vaccine will make it the third EU member to have done so after Hungary and Slovakia – although only Hungary has started administering the vaccine. 

The announcement however raised several questions, including whether the Austrian government would push ahead to administer the vaccine or whether it would wait for approval from the European Union – and when exactly the vaccine would be available. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What’s the status of the deal?

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in early April “we are in the closing stages and an order for Sputnik V can probably be placed next week”. 

The announcement of the done deal was made on April 19th

Kurz said on social media he was “very happy about the binding delivery promise” he made with Russia’s ambassador Dmitrij Lyubinsky.

Austria’s Der Standard newspaper reported on Wednesday that Austria looks set to place a delivery of the vaccine even before it receives approval from the European Union’s medical authority. 

The office of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told AFP on Tuesday that the talks had started on February 26th over the delivery of 300,000 doses in April, 500,000 in May and 200,000 in early June 2021. 

Why is Sputnik V not approved? 

Though EU member Hungary is already administering Sputnik V and a total of 57 countries have authorised its use, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), it is still under review by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The EU in March began a process to assess the vaccine, although EU authorities were critical in late March when they were not allowed to visit the manufacturing site. 

Can Austria start administering the vaccine without EMA approval? 

Yes. EU law allows countries to trigger what’s known as an ‘emergency approval’ process, which allows the vaccine to be administered locally before the EMA approves it. 

However, in on April 19th Austrian leaders announced publicly that they would not use the emergency approval process and would instead wait for the OK from the EMA. 

READ MORE: Austria rejects emergency approval for Russia’s Sputnik vaccine

In this case, while Austrian officials have already indicated they believe the vaccine to be safe, presumably the vaccine would be available to the public once it had been approved by Austrian health authorities. 

When will Sputnik V be administered in Austria? 

At this stage, nobody knows when vaccinations with Sputnik V are likely to start. 

Austria’s Der Standard reports that a delivery could be made as soon as the first week of April, although there is no guarantee of immediate injections. 

Why don’t we know more? 

Specifics of the arrangement are difficult to determine however as the deal is subject to a confidentiality agreement, Austrian media reports

For instance, in the early days of the negotiations, foreign media reported that the deal to import the vaccine has already been done, whereas Austrian media – and Kurz – have indicated it is not yet finalised. 

Why is Austria pushing hard for Sputnik earlier than other EU countries? 

Earlier this month, Kurz and five other central and eastern EU leaders urged Brussels to find a “correction mechanism” to fix what they called the unfair distribution of coronavirus vaccines within the bloc.

“If Austria receives an additional one million vaccine doses, we will be able to return to normality faster and could save many lives as well as jobs,” Kurz said.

“There should be no geopolitical blinkers when it comes to the vaccine. The only thing that should matter is whether the vaccine is effective and safe, and not where it comes from.”

Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober agreed, saying “One thing is clear: every vaccine used in Austria must be effective and safe”. 

The Russian vaccine has an effectiveness of around 92 percent.

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.