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Niinistö slams EU vaccine procurements, suggests Finland could consider direct purchases

The Finnish president said the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is "lagging behind" on vaccine approval.

Tasavallan presidentti Sauli Niinistö vastasi kysymyksiin ja keskusteli kuuntelijoiden kanssa Tasavallan presidentin kyselytunnilla.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö commented on the EU's slow process regarding Covid-19 vaccines. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has criticised the European Union for its joint procurement of coronavirus vaccines.

"Which [vaccines] have been ordered and what binding commitments were made? There's no doubt they should have done better at this. We have examples of countries that have been more successful than the EU in getting vaccines for themselves," the president said in an interview with Ilta-Sanomat, published on Saturday.

Niinistö was critical of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which approves vaccines in the EU, saying it was "far behind" on the AstraZeneca vaccine and that "now Johnson & Johnson is lagging behind".

The US authorised use of the single-dose J&J vaccine on 27 February. The EMA is not expected to decide whether to authorise it until Thursday 11 March.

Direct procurements "interesting"

The president commented on whether Finland should try to procure vaccines itself, calling the idea "interesting".

"Some EU countries, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have used their own medical authorities to bypass the EU common approval process. Of course, I am not able to comment on which vaccine is good or should be available here," he said.

Neither the Czech Republic no Slovakia has in fact not authorised use of vaccines ahead of the EMA, although Hungary has.

Asked whether Finland try to obtain vaccines outside the EU approval process, he replied indirectly.

"If we think about the future and the situation looks bad…virus variants are spreading fast in Finland as well. It would be a really difficult situation if people in Europe were desperately calling for access to vaccines [that] are available [elsewhere] around the world. All possibilities must be assessed openly," he said.

Putin offered vaccine technology in January

Niinistö confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to supply Finland with technology for producing the Sputnik V vaccine. The Speaker of the upper house of the Russian Parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, last week raised the issue in talks with former president Tarja Halonen as part of her work for the WHO's European Covid-19 Group.

"Putin has talked about his vaccine many times. In January, he spoke about his possible vaccine cooperation with Europe and their readiness to open it to Finland as well," Niinistö said. The two heads of state held a long phone discussion on 21 January.

Niinistö indicated that Finland would not move forward until the EMA evaluates the Sputnik vaccine for EU use, though.

Restrictions on movement may be needed

According to Niinistö, it is clear that restrictions on movement may again be necessary to rein in the spread of infectious new coronavirus variants within Finland. According to him, Finland is in a situation where there will only be more problems. Disease rates are rising rapidly.

"Yes, we have to react to that. Maybe there will be some restrictions on movement, as we had last spring. I don’t know if there will be a similar one, but we have to react," he said.

President's pandemic role limited

From mid-March to early April 2020, there were tough restrictions on traffic leaving the populous Uusimaa region of southern Finland, which includes Helsinki.

Under the current Finnish constitution, which took effect in 2000, the president is primarily responsible for foreign affairs. EU matters are mainly handled by the government, which is also responsible for domestic affairs.

The powers of the presidency have been gradually reduced since the autocratic rule of Urho Kekkonen, who held the post from 1956 to 1982.

EDIT 8 March 2021: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that Slovakia and the Czech Republic have not approved use of the vaccines before the EMA, although Niinistö said otherwise.

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