Russia and China are using their home-grown COVID-19 vaccines as a "means of propaganda", France's Foreign Minister said on Friday.
Speaking to FranceInfo radio, Jean-Yves Le Drian rebuffed Russian claims that the European Union is "clearly biased" against the Sputnik V vaccine, stressing that it must first "be validated by the European Union, by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), because in Europe we only take vaccines that are credible and safe, otherwise it would not be serious."
"Regarding Sputnik, we told the Russian authorities, come and test it here, but they only submitted the application a few days ago," he said.
European authorities have been criticised domestically for the slow pace of vaccination which lags behind countries including the US, the UK and Israel.
The EMA has so far approved four vaccines for use across the EU: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca/OxfordUniversity and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson). Sputnik V submitted an application for emergency use across the bloc earlier this month and a decision will be released by mid-April.
The Russian-made vaccine has been delivered to 55 countries worldwide including EU member state Hungary.
"In my opinion, the way it is managed, it is more a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy, in a way, than a means of solidarity and health aid," Le Drian continued.
"China, Russia are conducting a policy of influence through the vaccine even before vaccinating their own population," he went on.
"In Tunisia, Russia announced with a lot of media coverage that they were going to give 30,000 doses to the Tunisians. Very good. But at the same time, COVAX that I was talking about has already delivered 100,000 doses and will deliver 400,000 by May. And there is a total of 4 million doses planned for this year to Tunisia. This is a real work of solidarity, this is real health cooperation.
"I have the same example for Senegal where China announced it will deliver 200,000 doses of Sinopharm to Dakar. Very good. But at the same time, the COVAX mechanism will deliver in the same year 1 million doses and has already delivered nearly 400,000 doses," he continued.
The Kremlin rejected Le Drian's claim. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Russian presidency, said on Friday: "We absolutely do not agree (with the accusations) that Russia and China use the coronavirus pandemic and the issue of vaccines as tools of influence."
The EU has contributed about €2.2 billion to COVAX making it the second biggest contributor after the US. The vaccine-sharing programme, led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has so far delivered 32 million doses to 60 countries.
The WHO aims for vaccination to have started in every country by mid-April and for 20 per cent of the population of every country to have been immunised by the end of the year.
The organisation has repeatedly called for more solidarity in the distribution of vaccines worldwide.
Last week, WHO chief Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom warned that "the gap between the number of vaccines administered in rich countries, and the number of vaccines administered through COVAX is growing every single day, and becoming more grotesque every day."
Over 508 million doses of vaccines had been administered globally by Thursday, according to Our World in Data.
More than half of these doses have been used in high-income countries with the EU/EEA, UK and US accounting for a combined 222.5 million doses.