Ukraine to launch vaccine drive after delays spark ire

Ukraine was to begin a nationwide coronavirus vaccination programme Wednesday, after pushing back the start date in delays that sparked anger with the government.

The ex-Soviet country of 40 million people is one of the poorest in Europe and has struggled to keep up with others in the region to source vaccines and begin inoculating its population.

“Vaccinations against coronavirus are beginning today. The first vaccines were sent to the regions today at 07:00 (0500 GMT),” Health Minister Maksym Stepanov told reporters.

Ukraine received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine on Tuesday, marketed under the name Covishield and produced at the Serum Institute in India.

The health ministry has set out a five-stage jab rollout beginning with 367,000 people in priority groups who will be administered the vaccine by mobile teams.

The first group includes healthcare workers treating Covid-19 patients and the elderly with chronic illnesses. The ministry said vaccinations will be voluntary. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had faced criticism for failing to obtain vaccines for his country whose ageing public health system has been under strain during the pandemic.

Zelensky blamed the delay on wealthier Western countries which he said had reserved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in bulk. He has urged the EU to help eastern European countries.

His government originally announced it would begin its vaccination campaign in mid-February, but that date was pushed back after the arrival of vaccines was delayed.

Ukraine is awaiting delivery of eight million doses under the global Covax programme. 

It has said it also secured a total 17 million doses of vaccines developed by Novavax and AstraZeneca, including the 500,000 that arrived Tuesday.

And it has signed a contract to receive 1.9 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine.

Ukraine has recorded over 1.3 million cases and more than 25,000 deaths from the virus.