Before regulators held their ground earlier this month, there were good reasons to be concerned about President Trump’s push for a coronavirus vaccine. But he had already missed becoming the first world leader to get one approved. Vladimir Putin of Russia had already done it. And in stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s “America First” approach, Mr. Putin is using his under-tested vaccine as part of a global full-court press to win friends and enhance his country’s soft power.
On Aug. 11, the Russian Ministry of Health formally approved the Sputnik V vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow. Its announcement was a splashy event. A website in seven languages featured a recording of the beeps broadcast from space in 1957 confirming that the first Soviet Sputnik satellite had reached orbit. Those historical echoes pointedly evoked the idea that Russia was No. 1 again.
But at that point, the vaccine hadn’t even begun large-scale field trials, meaning that neither its safety nor efficacy had been fully vetted, and its early-phase clinical trial data hadn’t been released. Since then, a peer-reviewed publication of promising early results in the journal The Lancet has raised alarm bells for some scientists who are concerned about potential inconsistencies in the data, which a top Russian scientist has denied.
Still, buoyant news of the vaccine saturates Russia’s state-controlled media, and the country stands poised to leverage Sputnik into a significant diplomatic coup. It’s yet another instance — on top of America’s pullout from Syria, its exit from the Paris climate accord and its planned withdrawal from the World Health Organization — where the departure of the United States from the global stage has created a vacuum that Mr. Putin has been delighted to fill.
Because vaccines are administered to healthy people, they have especially high regulatory hurdles to clear. Full phase-three trials, designed to pick up rare side effects and to test effectiveness among diverse populations, generally involve thousands or tens of thousands of people. At approval, the Sputnik vaccine trial included just 76 people.
The Moscow mayor’s office is currently taking up to 40,000 volunteers through final-stage trials while simultaneously offering the vaccine to frontline medics and teachers. Jumping the gun carries potentially deadly consequences, including renewed spread of the virus if a weakly effective vaccine lulls people into complacency on mask-wearing and physical distancing before herd immunity has been established.
In the United States, the vaccines that are likely to be candidates for emergency-use authorizations by the Food and Drug Administration are at least partly through phase-three testing.
Of course, Sputnik may turn out to work just fine. Russia has plenty of world-class scientists, and the Gamaleya Institute claims to have had a head start. The institute points to its development of an Ebola vaccine and says Sputnik is just a slightly modified version of its vaccine for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. There’s no evidence, though, that those vaccines have actually been deployed in a significant way anywhere in the world.
Now the scramble by countries to secure a potential coronavirus vaccine is looking a lot like a replay of what happened in the 1990s with antiretrovirals to combat H.I.V./AIDS and in 2009 with the H1N1 influenza vaccine: Wealthy nations are buying up the initial supply, most likely leaving only leftovers for the rest of the world much later, if at all.
The United States, for example, has secured advance purchase commitments for over 800 million doses of at least six candidate vaccines, all for itself. Compounding an image of selfishness, the Trump administration confirmed last month that it would not join Covax, an effort by dozens of countries to provide for the pooled procurement and equitable distribution of vaccines. This decision has created the political space for Russia to cultivate the role of benefactor, even though it too has not joined the Covax effort.
Russia is pitching dozens of countries licensing and production offers for Sputnik. These deals aren’t limited to obvious friends and neighbors like Belarus and Kazakhstan. Pending regulatory approval, India is set to produce at least 300 million doses and buy 100 million more; Brazil’s Bahia state will buy 50 million, and Mexico has a purchase agreement for 32 million.
We don’t yet know the terms of these arrangements, and the “pending regulatory approval” clause is important; the deals might break down if Sputnik’s safety and efficacy don’t pan out, though Russia is trying to quell these fears by assuming some of the legal liability for adverse reactions. If you’re the head of Mexico or the Philippines or Brazil, reeling from months of medical, social and economic shock, you might be willing to take your chances on an incompletely tested and probably relatively cheap product from Russia that you can get your hands on soon — especially if it looks like the United States and Europe are leaving you to go it alone.
Mr. Putin’s only rival for the role of global savior is China, which is also rushing across regulatory milestones for vaccines and pushing deals, like a billion-dollar loan to help Latin American and Caribbean countries pay for them. China has also just joined Covax.
Though the Kremlin is engaged in pandemic-related belt tightening just like everyone else, it’s carrying little debt and has $120 billion in liquid assets in its sovereign wealth fund. It can afford some measure of vaccine generosity. The image-burnishing would be worth the price
Sputnik is also fodder for a disinformation campaign already showing up on Russian state-controlled media. The claim is that only the Russian vaccine is safe and effective.
Russia has a long history, dating back to Soviet times, of health-related disinformation. The KGB planted “fake news” stories around the world in the early 1980s claiming that H.I.V./AIDS was an American biological weapon. Research has shown that Russian trolls and bots have actively tried to erode public confidence in vaccines in the United States since at least 2014.
For Russia, the Sputnik vaccine goes far beyond national pride. Mr. Putin needs a showy win after a slew of recent bad press. He’s resorting to his standard playbook, leveraging a weak hand and exploiting U.S. missteps and vulnerabilities — unilateralism, neglect or abandonment of key allies, a retreat from established science — to bolster Russia’s image and global position as a great power.
Russia is betting that its short-term diplomatic gains outweigh the longer-term reputational risk should problems arise with the Sputnik vaccine. The United States could counter Russia’s gambit and contribute to an important global public good by making a relatively modest investment in the Covax vaccine effort.
Do we really want to cede this ground to Mr. Putin?
Judyth Twigg is a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializing in global health with a focus on Russia and Eurasia.
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