Russia gaining in diplomatic front with Covid vaccine

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People work in the packaging facility of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, developing an experimental coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, during a government-organized media tour in Beijing, China, September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RC2X4J90605E

Russia’s boast in August that it was the first country to authorize a vaccine for the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) led to skepticism at the time because of its insufficient testing. Six months later, as demand for the Sputnik V vaccine grows, experts are raising questions again — this time, over whether Moscow can keep up with all the orders from the countries that want it.

Slovakia got 200,000 doses on March 1, even though the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began reviewing its use on Thursday in an expedited process. The president of the hard-hit Czech Republic said he wrote directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to get a supply. Millions of doses are expected by countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East in a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.

“Sputnik V continues to confidently conquer Europe,” anchor Olga Skabeyeva declared on the Russia-1 state TV channel.

Dmitry Kiselev, the network’s top pro-Kremlin anchor, heaped on the hyperbole last month, blustering: “The Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, is the best in the world.”

State TV channels have covered vaccine exports extensively, citing praise from abroad for Russia and running segments about the difficulties countries are having with Western vaccines.

The early criticism of Sputnik V has been blunted by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that said large-scale testing showed it to be safe, with an efficacy rate of 91 percent against the virus.

That could help revamp Russia’s image to one of a scientific, technological and benevolent power, especially as other countries encounter shortages of Covid-19 vaccines because richer nations are scooping up the Western-made versions or manufacturers struggle with limited production capacity.

“The fact that Russia is among five countries that were able to quickly develop a vaccine … allows Moscow to present itself as a high-tech power of knowledge rather than a petrol pump in decline,” said foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov.

Some experts say boosting the use of vaccines from China and Russia — which have not been as popular as those from the West — could offer a quicker way to increase the global supply. Others note that Russia wants to score geopolitical points.

 

“Putin is using (the vaccine) to bolster a very tarnished image of Russia’s scientific and technological prowess,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. “He’s using it for geostrategic purposes in areas where Russia would like to have spheres of influence.”

DEMAND FOR RUSSIAN VACCINE GROWING

Whether Russia can deliver is another question. China has supplied millions of doses to other countries, but the output of Sputnik V appears for now to be far lower than the demand.

“They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in terms of this vaccine actually being a viable, marketable product,” said Judy Twigg, a political science professor specializing in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They’ve made all of these explicit and implicit promises to people inside and outside Russia about access to this product that now is unexpectedly great. And now they’re stuck trying, scrambling, trying to figure out how to deliver on all those promises.”

Russia also must take care of its own. Authorities have announced plans to vaccinate 60 percent of adults, or roughly 68 million people, by the end of June.

The domestic rollout in Russia has been slow, compared with other nations, with about 4 million people, or less than 3 percent of the population, vaccinated as of late February. Some of that could also be due to widespread reluctance among Russians to trust vaccines.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled and markets the vaccine abroad, has not responded to a request for comment on how many doses are going to other countries. It said earlier that it has received requests for 2.4 billion doses from over 50 nations.

Airfinity, a London-based science analytics company, estimates that Russia agreed to supply about 392 million doses abroad, and there are talks with countries for at least another 356 million.

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