Czech PM appoints fourth health minister since start of pandemic

The move opens the way for the possible use of Russian and Chinese vaccines in one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis on Wednesday installed his fourth health minister since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the Czech Republic hard, amid growing pressure to seek vaccines from Russia and possibly also China.

Petr Arenberger, the director of Prague’s University Hospital Vinohrady, replaced Jan Blatny and was sworn in by President Milos Zeman.

Blatny had taken the job in October, just as COVID-19 infections were spiking in the Czech Republic.

Three peaks of the pandemic have killed more than 27,000 people and put the country of 10.7 million at the top of global rankings in deaths per capita, according to the Our World in Data website.

Blatny’s dismissal came after Babis reprimanded him over an alleged lack of support for new COVID-19 medicines and his attempts to use testing to reopen schools.

Blatny had also strongly opposed following central European ally Hungary in using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine before European Union regulators approve it, putting him on a collision course with President Zeman.

Zeman has spoken in favour of using the Russian shot and others developed by China and had demanded Blatny’s dismissal.

“Each of us should strive to get as many vaccines as possible,” Zeman said as he swore in Arenberger. “Unfortunately your predecessor … [has] blocked this process.”

Blatny had dismissed the criticism and said he allowed the use of only approved vaccines to assure people “they are safe, tested and really work”.

“And that’s the same with the drugs against COVID,” he said. “My decisions were always based on scientific data and analysis.”

Slow vaccine rollout

Babis has said Sputnik V might be an option for the country due to a slow rollout of approved vaccines from the EU.

He was due to hold a news conference alongside Arenberger, who has reportedly said he would not be opposed to using the Russian-made jab in a clinical trial, later on Wednesday.

The Czech Republic is among the slowest countries to roll out vaccinations in the EU and may receive the fewest doses by midyear after spats within the bloc over distribution.

Arenberger takes over as the government eases some lockdown restrictions since cases have ebbed recently and the strain on hospitals has lightened.

From Monday, some schools will reopen and free travel around the country, which has been forbidden since March 1, will be allowed.

Blatny, a specialist in paediatric haematology, was deputy director of the University Hospital in the second largest Czech city of Brno before he became health minister on October 29.

He replaced epidemiologist Roman Prymula, who was dismissed after he was photographed visiting a restaurant that should have been closed as part of the lockdown.

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