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18th May 2021

Could US sanctions hit Russia vaccine sales to EU?

  • Washington: Same Russian scientists who helped develop Sputnik V linked to chemical weapon used in Russia's assassination programme (Photo: Eric B. Walker)

America has indicated it will not interfere with EU imports of Russia's coronavirus vaccine, despite its indirect links to chemical-weapons crimes.

"US sanctions are generally not focused on legitimate humanitarian exports or assistance," a US government official told EUobserver on Thursday (15 April), when asked if EU firms who co-produced or imported Russia's Sputnik V vaccine could face US penalties.

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"On Sputnik, we encourage foreign governments to rigorously assess any vaccine candidate for safety, efficacy, and good manufacturing practices before deployment," the US official added, however.

The question arose after the US imposed sanctions last year on Russia's 33rd Scientific Research and Testing Institute and 48th Central Research Institute.

They did so citing their role in Russia's chemical weapons programme, which produced the toxin used in an assassination attempt against opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

But the 48th Central Research Institute, which is attached to the Russian defence ministry, also took part in developing Sputnik V.

A Russian scientist who heads the institute, Sergei Borisevich, also co-authored a study on Sputnik V safety in British medical journal The Lancet in February.

US sanctions, such as those on the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline, have extra-territorial applicability, meaning that European companies who do business with sanction-linked entities can face penalties.

And several EU states, including the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia have either voiced interest in Sputnik V imports or started importing it already.

A German firm, Rota Verpackungstechnik, has also supplied a production line and maintenance services for making pre-filled syringes of Sputnik V for Russian company Vector-BiAlgam in Novosibirsk in eastern Russia, according to EUobserver sources.

The company declined to comment when asked about the threat of US penalties, citing a non-disclosure agreement covering its Russian project.

For its part, German newspaper Bild, on Tuesday, also raised the alarm on potential US intervention.

"That [Sputnik V imports] could massively violate US sanctions over the Navalny case. According to Bild's information, this is what US authorities assume," the newspaper wrote.

The EU foreign service told EUobserver the question had not come up in any discussions with US counterparts.

A source in the EU institutions also said that even if the US decided to take action, it would be a bilateral matter.

"The US sanctions if applied might hit the specific member state or entity dealing with or participating in production, so this would be first of all a bilateral issue," the EU source said.

"In general the EU does not recognise and rejects the extraterritorial application of sanctions by others," the source added.

"It seems as a bit far-fetched speculation what Bild writes," the source said.

US academics also said it would be a bad idea if the US was to take a tough line.

"Issues of public health should not be subject to political considerations or machinations as a matter of principle," Eugene Finkel, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, Judy Twigg, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, noted that the US government official's comment on Sputnik V looked ambiguous.

Deliberately vague?

"This was a pretty deliberately vague response," she said.

"RDIF isn't donating Sputnik V doses to EU countries as 'humanitarian exports or assistance' - it's selling them as part of a business deal," she added, referring to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, responsible for vaccine exports.

She also said: "It would be politically and ethically disastrous and wrong for the US government to interfere with vaccine access anywhere right now, given the emergency situation".

"But as more vaccine alternatives become available to cover people in the EU and elsewhere, the fact that sanctioned institutes played an important role in Sputnik V's development could become more politically salient," Twigg noted.

"The United States continues to partner closely and collaboratively with the EU on the Covid-19 response," the US official also told this website.

"As secretary of state [Antony] Blinken has said, we'll work with global partners on manufacturing and supplies to ensure there will be enough vaccine for everyone, everywhere," the official added.

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