After several delays, Ukraine on Tuesday finally received its first shipment of Covid-19 vaccine doses.
The country of 40 million people is one of the poorest in Europe and one of the last in the region to begin inoculating its population.
A plane carrying 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, marketed under the name Covishield and produced at the Serum Institute in India — the world’s largest vaccine maker — landed at Kiev’s Boryspil airport.
“It has arrived,” health ministry spokeswoman Sofia Fedchenko told AFP.
Health Minister Maksym Stepanov was due to detail the ex-Soviet country’s vaccination strategy at a press conference later Tuesday.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had faced criticism for failing to obtain vaccines earlier for Ukraine, which suffers from an ageing healthcare system.
Zelensky has blamed the delay on wealthier Western countries that reserved the Pfizer and Moderna jabs in bulk, and has urged the EU to help eastern European countries source vaccines.
His government had originally announced that it would begin its vaccination campaign in mid-February, but the shipment of the first vaccine doses was delayed.
Ukraine is also awaiting delivery of eight million doses promised under the World Health Organization’s Covax programme.
Kiev has said it has also secured 17 million doses of vaccines developed by Novavax and AstraZeneca, including the 500,000 that arrived Tuesday.
It has also said it signed a contract to receive 1.9 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine.
Breakaway regions in the east controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists began a vaccine drive with Russia’s Sputnik V jab in early February.
Ukraine earlier this month banned vaccines developed by “aggressor states”, a designation Kiev has applied to Russia since 2015.
Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership has repeatedly rejected calls from pro-Moscow politicians to approve Sputnik V, denouncing the vaccine as a geopolitical tool.
Ukraine has recorded over 1.3 million cases and more than 25,000 deaths from the virus.
Ukraine has banned coronavirus vaccines produced in bitter rival Russia despite struggles to launch its vaccination campaign.
A resolution passed by the government on February 8 and posted on its website Wednesday banned the registration of vaccines from “aggressor states”, a designation Ukraine has applied to Russia since 2015.
Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership has repeatedly rejected calls from pro-Moscow politicians to approve Russia’s Sputnik V jab, denouncing the vaccine as a geopolitical tool.
Ukraine has been fighting separatists backed by Russia in its Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014 following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
The ban on Russian vaccines came despite criticism of President Volodymyr Zelensky for failing to source Western-made jabs. Not a single dose of any vaccine has yet to arrive in the ex-Soviet country.
Zelensky said this week that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, would begin the first phase of the vaccination campaign later this month.
The country of some 40 million is awaiting delivery of eight million doses promised under the United Nations’ Covax programme and up to five million doses of the Chinese CoronaVac jab.
It has also secured 12 million doses of vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax, but that is still not enough to meet the country’s needs.
On Wednesday Ukraine said it launched an investigation into the country’s purchasing of coronavirus vaccines, highlighting the country’s struggle to end systemic graft.
Sputnik V has meanwhile been rolled out in the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
Ukraine has recorded more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases and more than 24,000 deaths.
The European Commission chief said on Monday she had called on EU member states to donate some of their coronavirus jabs to Ukraine, which is trying to launch a vaccination campaign.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has faced criticism at home for failing to source Western-made jabs and has called on the EU to help Ukraine source vaccines.
Zelensky said on Monday that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, would begin the first phase of the vaccination campaign later this month.
The country of some 40 million is awaiting delivery of eight million doses promised under the United Nations Covax programme and up to five million doses of the Chinese CoronaVac jab.
“On top of Covax, I have also asked our member states to donate part of their doses to Ukraine,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a video address at a conference held in Ukraine’s capital Kiev.
“Thanks to Covax, Ukraine’s doctors and nurses will receive the first vaccines already this month,” she said, adding that “millions of other doses will reach Ukraine by the summer”.
Ukraine has not registered any vaccine so far and Zelensky has rejected calls from pro-Moscow politicians to approve Russia’s Sputnik V jab.
Last week, the post-Soviet country said it had also secured 12 million doses of vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax.
The total amount of the already secured doses is not enough to meet the needs of the country, however.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday he tested positive for the novel coronavirus but felt fine as infections surged in the country.
“Despite all quarantine measures, I also had a positive test,” Zelensky said on Facebook.
The 42-year-old leader said that his temperature was 37.5C but that he felt “good”. He will self-isolate and continue to perform his duties, he added.
“Most people overcome Covid-19. And I will get through this too,” he said.
The head of Zelensky’s office Andriy Yermak also said that he had contracted the coronavirus.
In June, Zelensky’s wife Olena Zelenska was hospitalised after contracting the virus but has recovered.
On Saturday, the ex-Soviet country of 40 million people reported a record 10,746 new coronavirus infections.
Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest countries, last week imposed fines on people who refuse to wear face masks in public places.
Officials have repeatedly criticised the general public for ignoring social distancing rules and other anti-virus restrictions, threatening to reintroduce a lockdown that was lifted in June.
In a bid to halt the spread of the virus, the country is considering whether to introduce a partial lockdown on weekends, with only essential businesses such as grocery stores allowed to remain open.
Since the start of the pandemic Ukrainian officials have reported more than 469,000 coronavirus cases and 8,565 deaths across the country.
Zelensky is latest in a long line of world leaders to contract the virus, including US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Andrzej Duda of Ukraine’s neighbour Poland.
Ukraine assistant coach Oleksandr Shovkovsky has been drafted into the coronavirus-hit squad for a friendly against France later Wednesday, at the age of 45 and four years since his last game of football.
Head coach Andriy Shevchenko has just Dynamo Kiev’s uncapped Georgiy Bushchan as an option in goal after Real Madrid’s Andriy Lunin and veteran Yuriy Pankiv returned positive Covid-19 tests on Tuesday.
Those came after first-choice Andriy Pyatov’s positive test earlier in the week.
Shovkovsky, who won 92 caps for Ukraine, ended his professional career as a Dynamo Kiev player in December 2016, but “keeps himself in good physical shape”, Ukraine’s football association said in a statement.
Shovkovsky will only play against Les Bleus, with the kick-off set for 1910 GMT at the Stade de France, should Bushchan test positive for Covid or get injured, it added.
On Monday six squad members, all from Shakhtar Donetsk, withdrew from the game after club team-mates Pyatov and Taras Stepanenko contracted Covid-19.
At least 22 people including military cadets were killed and two others seriously injured Friday when a Ukrainian air force plane crashed near Kharkiv in the east of the country, the interior ministry said.
“Twenty-two people died,” Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko told AFP, adding that “the search for two other people is continuing”.
The transport plane was carrying a total of 28 passengers when it crashed, including 21 military students and seven crew, he said.
“It’s a shock,” he added. “At the moment it’s impossible to establish the cause” of the crash.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would travel to the region on Saturday.
“We are urgently creating a commission to investigate all the circumstances and causes of the tragedy,” he wrote on Facebook.
The Antonov-26 transport aircraft crashed at around 8:50 pm local time (17:50 GMT), two kilometres (1 mile) from the Chuhuiv military airbase, the emergency services said.
The plane caught fire after the crash and was extinguished after one hour.
The town of Chuhuiv is around 30 kilometres southeast of Kharkiv and 100 kilometres west of the front line with the pro-Russian separatists.
Wearing full protective gear including a white suit and plastic visor, Ukrainian doctor Marta Saiko checked on an elderly patient hooked up to a ventilator.
The country has seen a surge of new COVID-19 cases following the lifting of nationwide lockdown measures.
“We’re overloaded. Over the last 24 hours we’ve admitted 18 patients with suspected coronavirus,” said Saiko, head of primary care at Lviv Emergency Hospital.
“It’s like in a war, it’s very hard. All our staff are exhausted,” she said.
Saiko’s hospital, in one of the worst affected regions of Ukraine, is still treating ordinary emergency patients but for the first time since the pandemic began is also admitting suspected virus cases.
The hospital has created 50 beds for such patients and all were full within three days, she said. “Their medical state is moderately serious or bordering on serious. One patient has died.”
Nataliya Matolinets, head of the intensive care unit, said the hospital had begun treating coronavirus patients because the city needs more beds.
“Both the psychological and physical burden has grown significantly for the doctors and all the staff,” she said.
During the first wave of contagion earlier this year, the hospital admitted some patients who subsequently tested positive and infected medics, she said.
Now, unlike in the first weeks of the outbreak, doctors have enough protective equipment, she said, remaining upbeat.
“We’re stress-resistant and understand how much hope is pinned on us.”
The facade of the hospital has a mural showing a doctor in white protective gear and the word “Dyakuyu”, meaning thank you in Ukrainian.
– ‘People forgot lockdown’ –
In June, the World Health Organization listed Ukraine among two dozen European countries that have seen resurgences of the virus.
At the highest point on June 26, Ukraine had a daily increase of 1,109 cases as authorities warned they might have to re-impose lockdown measures.
The country has confirmed more than 49,000 cases and over 1,200 deaths.
Over the past two weeks the western Lviv region has reported more new infections than any other.
Nataliya Timko, a top epidemiologist at the Lviv regional health care department, told AFP that the region had expected to have more cases in the first wave but avoided this thanks to strict lockdown rules.
But now “some people have forgotten about the lockdown”, she lamented, saying the virus is spreading because some are ditching face masks and other protective measures.
Andriy Sadovyi, mayor of Lviv, a picturesque city of one million that is a major tourism destination, told AFP that the region had carried out more tests than any other, detecting more cases.
He urged residents to adhere to social distancing rules, stressing these were in place to prevent infections.
“You can’t have a coffee in a cafe in Lviv until they’ve taken your temperature and all the waiters wear masks,” Sadovyi said of the city famed for its cafe culture.
Ukraine eased its lockdown measures in late May and early June with the resumption of public transport and the reopening of parks, outdoor cafes and beauty salons.
– ‘Hard to see patients die’ –
The mayor praised the work of local medics.
“It is reassuring that the medical system is coping with the number of patients, and we have up to 40 percent (of virus beds) occupied,” Sadovyi said.
If the surge in cases continues, all the city’s hospitals will have to start treating coronavirus patients, he added, however.
He urged the government to fulfil its promise to pay all the doctors who treat COVID-19 patients a bonus of three times their monthly salary.
“It’s important to give them decent pay,” Sadovyi said.
He acknowledged that it is “psychologically difficult for the doctors to reorganise how they work” as hospitals have to hastily adapt their systems to treat virus patients.
The new caseload causes a lot of physical and emotional stress, agreed Timko.
“It is hard to work in protective suits; it’s hard to watch patients die.”