Vaccine Diplomacy: Sputnik V

By Helen Ramscar. 16 February 2021.

Russia’s vaccine was given an international boost by its recent review in The Lancet, which supports the view that Sputnik V was at least as safe and effective as the leading US and UK vaccines. Given Russia’s reputation for dispatching deadly poisons – a signature Russian GRU calling card of late – this endorsement of Sputnik V gives Russia just the sort of external nod it needs to help recast its bio-chemical prowess in a different light. This time not the Russian state lacing cups of tea, door handles and underpants with Novichok to bring about indiscrimate harm, death and fear; instead, hundreds of millions of Sputnik V vaccines being ordered quickly by countries in urgent need, and each vial delivered with an impression of Russia’s biotechnical prowess and effectiveness as a global health leader.

Over 180 countries have signed up, with varying degrees of commitment, to the global COVAX scheme to coordinate the research, development and manufacture of multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates, and, crucially, to negotiate their pricing so populations receive equal access regardless of income levels. COVAX aims to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021. Russia was one of the few countries (with the US under President Trump) not to back COVAX. By mid February 2021, largely on the back of The Lancet piece, Russia claims no fewer than 50 countries have requested Sputnik V. Some countries have received their first consignments; many more are expected imminently.

Amidst the worldwide scramble to secure some of the desperately limited supply, many countries do not have the luxury of picking vaccines along traditional political preferences. If the science appears validated, the vaccine price tag is relatively cheap and it travels well, and it can actually be delivered soon, the attraction is there – even if there will be strings attached.

For a country such as Russia that has traditionally wielded its hard power to coerce or make its presence felt, that dozens of countries are now suddenly knocking on its door – that Sputnik V has magnetic qualities, drawing countries to Moscow – is a sign of soft power in action. Russia has traditionally scored low in soft power rankings but Sputnik V is a chance to poll a lot higher.

‘First mover advantage’ has been driving vaccine diplomacy since the outset. Initially, soft power kudos to the first country to be able to declare a vaccine was possible, at a time when even that hope could not be assumed. The first countries to be able to reopen their economies have a clear economic advantage; the speed of national roll-outs in the cases of Britain and Israel has been stunning. For the small number of countries able to provide real global leadership, or to convene the international organisations that can provide it, moving fast to roll-out good vaccines globally and fairly is a prize none can yet claim.

There are many factors that could make Sputnik V’s current bounce short-lived. The unfairness of price differentiation is one of them. Parallel trade is another; where vaccines bought by one country at a certain price and intended for that country, are then sold to another country for a higher price. Russia’s history of withholding Sputnik V data is another. In August 2020, President Putin announced the triumph of Russia’s molecular masterpiece despite almost no publically available trial data, to the dismay of Russia’s own ACTO (Association of Clinical Trials Organisations) trying to make Russia an attractive destination for trials. Using vaccines out in the real world is the biggest human trial of all. Russia’s precedent of lack of data transparency does not inspire confidence that, for example, serious adverse reactions will be shared openly, fully and quickly.

As Covid-19 is likely to be with us all for a long time, requiring regular vaccines to try to outmanouvre new variants, Russia’s new bilateral deals to produce Sputnik V in dozens of countries worldwide are not likely to be short-lived. For once manufacturing inside other countries is under way, and as the demand is likely to remain for years, further Sputnik V deals are very likely. (Indeed, a successful Sputnik V on Russia’s shop window offers more of an open door for other new deals to follow.) Britain and the US must not be blindsided here. If Russia does gain a foothold in the international vaccine market and the distribution of Sputnik V is even reasonably successful, Russia’s hand within the new Great Game of international vaccine diplomacy will be greatly strengthened.