Slovakia has become the second EU member to start using Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine without approval from the bloc's drug safety agency after a torrid dispute over the issue that forced a prime minister to resign.
Igor Matovic quit as premier in March after his coalition partners denounced his surprise purchase of two million doses of Sputnik V, which before Monday's introduction in Slovakia was not being used anywhere in the EU except Hungary.
Slovakia's drug regulator then said in April that it had not received enough data from Russia to evaluate the safety of Sputnik V, and questioned whether the first 200,000 doses delivered to the country were identical to the vaccine that had been favourably peer reviewed in the Lancet medical journal in February.
The developers of Sputnik V accused the regulator of “sabotage”, and demanded that it return the doses to Russia and also send some for more testing to an EU-approved laboratory, at which point Hungary stepped in to offer its services.
Slovak health minister Vladimir Lengvarsky announced in May that Sputnik V had passed the Hungarian tests, and could be administered from June 7th – but that his country would not use more than the initial 200,000 doses until the vaccine received clearance from the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Sputnik V is now available at eight vaccination centres in the country of 5.4 million to anyone aged between 18 and 60, and by Monday some 5,000 people had signed up to receive it.
The populist Mr Matovic, who is now finance minister, continues to accuse his critics of politicising issues around Sputnik V so as to attack him and besmirch Russia’s reputation.
He argued on Facebook that "there is no legitimate barrier to Sputnik V being used to vaccinate people over 60 years of age...I believe malicious people driven by primitive geopolitical hatred will not be given space for their games this time, and older people will be given a chance to be vaccinated with the vaccine they want."
Slovakia – which is also using western-made vaccines – is now easing coronavirus restrictions. According to Our World in Data, Slovakia and six other central European states – Hungary, Bosnia, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria – are among the 10 countries with the highest per capita death tolls from Covid-19.
Serbia is also using Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm alongside western-made shots, and last Friday Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announced that Belgrade was starting production of Sputnik V.
“Thanks to the efforts of Russian scientists and with great support from President Putin, today we are witnessing a great step forward for our Serbia in the fight against coronavirus...Long live Serbian-Russian friendship!” Mr Vucic tweeted.