Ukrainian minister says 'information attacks' hitting vaccine procurement

KYIV (Reuters) – The Ukrainian health minister said on Tuesday that Kyiv’s vaccine purchases were being hampered by “dirty information attacks” that had triggered a corruption investigation against his ministry.

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian Health Minister Maksym Stepanov speaks during an interview in Kyiv, Ukraine January 21, 2021. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Maksym Stepanov denied wrongdoing after the anti-corruption agency NABU this month launched an inquiry into the procurement of China’s Sinovac vaccines through an intermediary importer, Lekhim.

Ukraine lags behind most European countries in procuring COVID-19 vaccines and has yet to start mass vaccinations.

The corruption row deepened this week when the government announced new legislation on NABU’s status, which a leading activist group, AntAC, described as revenge for the inquiry and a ruse to dismiss NABU chief Artem Sytnyk.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy denied NABU’s independence was under threat and said the wording of the legislation was discussed with the International Monetary Fund, which declined immediate comment.

The text of the bill, which needs parliament’s approval to become law, has not been made public.

Any threat to the independence of NABU, which was set up with the backing of Western donors, could further derail the flow of foreign aid to Ukraine at a time when its economy has been hammered by coronavirus lockdowns.

But Stepanov said it was the corruption allegations that were costing Ukraine dear.

“Due to dirty information attacks, we have already started seeing reluctance on the part of prospective vaccine companies regarding future cooperation,” he told a morning briefing.

Stepanov said the disinformation was intended to disrupt Ukraine’s vaccination campaign and force it to turn to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Kyiv has dismissed the idea of buying Sputnik because of enduring anger over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Last week, Reuters reported that shipments of the Sinovac vaccine to Ukraine could be delayed until April.

Ukraine is counting on more loans from a $5 billion IMF programme this year, but the IMF said on Saturday Kyiv needed to implement more reforms first.

Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the new NABU legislation was needed to address the concerns outlined in a constitutional court ruling last year about how NABU was set up.

“From what we hear now, we can say in advance that this bill does not pose any threat to NABU as an institution,” he said in a statement.

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