Russia's once-derided vaccine may garner diplomatic dividends

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President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in August that Russia had cleared the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine for use before it even completed safety trials sparked scepticism worldwide. Now, reports Bloomberg, he may reap diplomatic dividends as Russia basks in arguably its biggest scientific breakthrough since the Soviet era.

Countries are lining up for supplies of Sputnik V after peer-reviewed results published in The Lancet medical journal this week showed the Russian vaccine protects against the deadly virus about as well as US and European shots, and far more effectively than Chinese rivals.

The report says at least 20 countries have approved the inoculation for use, including EU member-state Hungary, while key markets such as Brazil and India are close to authorising it. Now Russia is setting its sights on the prized EU market as the bloc struggles with its vaccination programme amid supply shortages.

Bloomberg reports that in the global battle to defeat a pandemic that’s claimed 2.3m lives in little more than a year, the race to obtain vaccines has assumed geopolitical significance as governments seek to emerge from the huge social and economic damage caused by lockdowns imposed to limit the spread of the virus. That’s giving Russia an edge as one of a handful of countries where scientists have produced an effective defence.

The report says its decision to name Sputnik V after the world’s first satellite whose 1957 launch gave the Soviet Union a stunning triumph against the US to start the space race only underlined the scale of the significance Moscow attached to the achievement. Results from the late-stage trials of 20,000 participants reviewed in The Lancet showed that the vaccine has a 91.6% success rate.

“This is a watershed moment for us,” Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, which backed Sputnik V’s development and is in charge of its international roll-out, said in an interview.

Bloomberg reports that, according to Oksana Antonenko, a director at Control Risks consultancy, Sputnik’s success won’t change hostility toward Putin among Western governments, though it could strengthen Russia’s geopolitical clout in regions such as Latin America. “With this vaccine, it’s proven itself capable of producing something new that’s in demand around the world,” she said.

Production constraints are the biggest challenge facing all manufacturers as global demand far outpaces supply, the report says.

Russia, pledging free shots for its 146m population, began output last year and the vaccine is currently being manufactured in countries including India, South Korea and Brazil. This week, it emerged a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement to produce Sputnik V in Turkey, even as the nation has deals to buy 50m doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s CoronaVac vaccine and 4.5m doses of the Pfizer Inc-BioNTech SE shot.

Bloomberg reports that despite Russia’s success, domestic demand remains lukewarm so far, driven by public suspicion of the authorities. Putin, 68, fuelled the scepticism in December when he said he was waiting to get the inoculation until it had been cleared for people his age.

He still hasn’t said whether he’s been vaccinated, but other nations aren’t waiting to find out. The day after announcing he’d contracted COVID-19, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he’d thanked a “genuinely affectionate” Putin for pledging 24m doses of Sputnik V in the coming two months. Three days later, Bolivian President Luis Arce personally took delivery of a batch at La Paz airport.

Latin America is proving fertile territory, Bloomberg reports. Argentina, which has struggled to obtain vaccine supplies, started its mass inoculation programme after taking delivery of more than half a million Sputnik V doses by January. It’s been joined by Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. In Brazil, the region’s biggest market, a decision announced 3 February to scrap the requirement for phase three trials for emergency use may speed up approval.

The report says Guinea became the first African nation to start dispensing Sputnik V in December with Moscow-friendly President Alpha Conde and several ministers taking the vaccine. It expects to get 1.6m doses this year and is also in talks on acquiring Chinese vaccines, along with AstraZeneca Plc’s shot. Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast are among other potential customers for Russia. “We’re not in a position where we can say no to any vaccine. We’ve opted for the Pfizer vaccine, but we’re looking at other vaccines as well,” said Professor Joseph Benie, head of the National Institute of Public Hygiene in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “There’s an urgency now to start inoculating.”

The report says unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Sputnik V can be stored in a fridge rather than a freezer, making it easier to transport and distribute in poorer and hotter countries. At around $20 for a two-shot vaccination, it’s also cheaper than most Western alternatives. While more expensive than AstraZeneca, the Russian inoculation has shown higher efficacy than the UK vaccine.

For some nations such as Iran, which received the first batch of a promised 2m doses this week, Russia offers a more palatable political alternative than Western suppliers. But, Bloomberg reports, Russia is also making inroads into countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which is traditionally close to the US and has approved Sputnik V for use.

But, the report says, in what could represent the Kremlin’s biggest potential breakthrough, Russia has asked European regulators to examine a request for authorisation of Sputnik V after Germany promised to help expedite the process. With top EU officials still smarting over a sluggish vaccine roll-out, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week the Russian shot could be used to protect people in the 27-member bloc as long as it was approved by the European Medicines Agency.

France’s industry minister said she’s “agnostic” when it comes to approving the Russian vaccine. “Any vaccine that’s ready and that presents the safety and efficacy conditions is welcome in Europe,” Agnes Pannier-Runacher said. “We have an interest in having the maximum of different vaccines and volumes.”

European approval may take several months because of the need to submit detailed data, The Lancet’s editor-in-chief Richard Horton is quoted in Bloomberg as saying. “I do think this Russian vaccine will come on tap,” but “not quickly,” he said.

While Russia says it expects the vaccine to be available to 700m people this year, it’s facing production bottlenecks. “We have to be realistic. Given our other commitments, we will not be able to supply to Europe before May, other than Hungary,” said RDIF’s Dmitriev.


Full Bloomberg report (Open access)

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