Can the Czech Health Minister Have His Cake and Eat It Too?

, by Ladislav Charouz

Can the Czech Health Minister Have His Cake and Eat It Too?
Andie “soynugget18”, flikr

In just seven months, the Czech Republic has cycled through as many Health Ministers as it did during the preceding seven years.

On April 7th, Petr Arenberger, director of the University Hospital Vinohrady, became the fourth person to accept this ungrateful task.

To recapitulate: Adam Vojěch, Health Minister since December 2017, resigned on the 21st of September as the country’s daily infection rate began to be counted in the thousands. Relatively successful in his handling of the first wave of the pandemic, Vojtěch was critically undermined by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who struck down his proposal of an indoor mask mandate towards the end of summer.

Vojtěch’s successor Roman Prymula lasted little longer than a month: he was forced to resign on October 29th after being photographed leaving a restaurant with the PM’s righthand man Jaroslav Faltýnek. Despite the fact that he himself had banned indoor dining, he denied any wrongdoing for several days following the incident.

The most recent dismissal, that of Jan Blatný, is perhaps most perplexing, as it was not prefaced by worsening infection rates or a personal scandal. In fact, the seven day average of new cases reached its lowest point since December just a week before Blatný’s end. Nevertheless, Czech President Miloš Zeman blamed the Czech Republic’s high mortality rate on Blatný’s refusal to permit Sputnik V use without the approval of the European Medical Agency and pressured Prime Minister Babiš to sack him. Babiš, who relies on Zeman’s support in the upcoming October parliamentary election, eventually yielded.

Petr Arenberger has shown himself to be more pliant than Blatný. While he has made public assurances that he would not purchase Sputnik V vaccines without EMA approval, Arenberger has begun to discuss ways to circumvent this hurdle with experts. On his very first day in office, Arenberger discussed the matter with Director of the State Institute for Drug Control Irena Storová, who has opposed granting an exception to the Russian vaccine. Arenberger, however, said the two would “take a look at the documentation”, ostensibly in the hopes of finding a way to justify a new course of action.

Storová has already stated that the documentation available to the State Institute for Drug Control is insufficient. As an analysis by Czech Radio points out, only Russia can fill in the gaps, and it may refuse to do so just as it did in the case of a similar request by Slovakia. Another possibility Arenberger is considering is to allow the use of Sputnik V within the scope of a clinical trial. However, this option is likely to pose a number of difficulties and may, in fact, take longer to implement than waiting for EMA to approve the vaccine.

Will Sputnik V’s Slovak scandal be a watershed moment?

Shockingly, Arenberger seems to be continuing in his efforts to greenlight Sputnik V despite the vaccine’s recent fiasco in Slovakia. On April 8th, the Slovak State Institute for Drug Control made the explosive announcement (cited by RFE) that “the Sputnik V doses it was examining were not the same as those being reviewed by the EMA, or apparently those that were reviewed in the British medical journal The Lancet.”

Russia accused the institute of sabotage and demanded Slovakia return the vaccines, saying the Slovaks had violated their contract by testing Sputnik V at an unacredited EU laboratory. However, the SIDC rejected these claims, pointing out that it had arranged for the vaccines to be tested by the accredited Biomedical Research Centre of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

The findings of the Slovak SIDC, if true, have immense implications for Russia’s global Sputnik V operation. “According to news reports,” the Slovak SIDC writes, “Sputnik V is being used in 40 countries worldwide, but these vaccines are associated only by name.” This leads to one inevitable conclusion: either Russia’s production capacities are completely unreliable, or Russia’s leaders export whatever they please when they think they can get away with it.

It is unconscionable that Czech leadership is still considering the purchase of Sputnik V vaccines produced in Russia. This may have been justified given the Lancet study findings, but the new revelations from Slovakia raise serious safety concerns about the entire project. The Czech Republic simply does not know what substance it will receive.

Health Minister Arenberger has argued that part of the population wants to be vaccinated by Sputnik V. According to one poll, 26% of respondents support using vaccines regardless of EMA approval. According to another poll, 11% of all Czechs think Sputnik V is the best vaccine. But bickering about whether these numbers justify action is beside the point. If a food regulator decided not to ban a dangerous product because some people like it, he would justly be accused of not doing his job. After all, that is why democratic societies have public officials: not to permit everything people want, but to provide expertise on topics that most people do not have the time to study. For Arenberger to foist this duty on the populace would be a complete shirking of responsibility.

Qui bono?

Arenberger’s drive to approve Sputnik V in some capacity is, to some degree, understandable. He is facing considerable pressure from President Zeman, who brought up Sputnik V and the Sinopharm vaccine during Arenberger’s inauguration. Although the president cannot dismiss the health minister at will, he could prevail on Prime Minister Babiš to sack him, just as he did in the case of Health Minister Jan Blatný.

But why does Babiš routinely cave to Zeman’s pressure? Babiš is facing a tough re-election this October, and relies on some degree of support from Zeman, who is highly popular with rural and less educated voters. Furthermore, Babiš’s party ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) may, according to the latest polls, place second. In this case, Zeman has expressed a willingness to allow his ally to propose a government coalition, regardless of how his party does. He has attempted to justify this bizarre position by (irrelevantly) pointing out that ANO’s main opponents are coalitions, rather than single parties.

The last and most important piece in this puzzle is Zeman himself, who has long been a pro-Russian presence in Czech politics. On an ideological level, Zeman is a deep believer in a “Clash of Civilizations”. He has openly stated Russia is a necessary ally in the conflict between Western civilisation and Muslim “anticivilisation”. However, the money trail is even more telling. Numerous figures around Zeman have deep business ties to Russia, and a political party founded explicitly to support him received millions from a web of shady donations connected to Vladimir Putin’s inner circles.

Put simply, the health of the nation depends on three men: a careerist at the whims of his superiors, a corrupt populist with few moral boundaries, and a president beholden to foreign cash. Something is rotten in the Czech Republic.

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