Recent British journal publications on Sputnik V have rocketed Russia’s vaccine diplomacy. The geopolitical ramifications of its wider rollout could be troubling. This article by Helen Ramscar was first published by RUSI on 12 March 2021 and can be accessed here too.
The inclusion of Sputnik V, Moscow’s Covid-19 vaccine, in The Lancet on 2 February 2021 gave it an international ‘soft power’ boost that could not have been achieved by all Russian journals combined. The head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund bankrolling Sputnik V proudly announced: ‘The data published by The Lancet proves that not only Sputnik V is the world’s first registered vaccine, but also one of the best’. That the data was published by The Lancet is critical to his claim of proof. As a prestigious British journal with a longstanding international reputation, it plays a significant role in shaping the stage of medical research and innovation. For this reason, its apparent endorsement of Sputnik V has been so influential. It also demonstrates how a publication’s independence from direct government control does not mean it does not at times directly benefit a government able to leverage that exposure, as Russia has in this incidence.
The Lancet published two articles on Sputnik V that day. One piece – by 31 co-authors from Moscow’s Gamaleya National Research Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology, the People’s Friendship University of Russia and the 48th Central Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence in Moscow – was an interim analysis of a phase-three trial in Russia of Sputnik V. The second piece was a commentary entitled ‘Sputnik V COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate Appears Safe and Effective’, co-authored by two professors at the University of Reading and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Yet, interim data and a friendly endorsement are not the same as official regulatory approval carried out by the likes of the US’s Food and Drug Administration and the EU’s European Medicines Agency; formal thresholds of rigour and confidence that the world deserves of vaccines now already in wide usage. Still, as one of the oldest and most cited medical journals globally, The Lancet was good enough for audiences desperate for encouraging signals. It was enough of an external nod of support to rocket Russia’s vaccine diplomacy too.
LEVERAGING GOOD PUBLICITY
By the end of February, largely on the back of these publications, no fewer than 37 countries had approved Sputnik V for emergency use. It was reported that the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team had secured over 300 million doses of Sputnik V, alongside over 270 million doses of AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. In Central Asia, Moscow appeared to be gaining ground over Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy.
Sputnik V’s rapid foray into new markets in Latin America may indeed have longer-term implications in an area that has traditionally been the US’s backyard. Argentina gratefully received more than half a million doses in January. It served as an embassy of sorts for Sputnik V; reportedly, Argentinian delegations to Moscow in late 2020 translated reams of details into Spanish and shared these with Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay and Chile to speed up their ability to decide. Bolivia’s first batch arrived at the end of January. By mid-February, Mexico received its first 200,000 doses. By mid-March, Brazil and Peru appeared close to sealing respective deals.
As early as January 2021, Hungary was the first EU member state to break ranks with EU vaccine solidarity when it unilaterally approved Sputnik V and administered its first doses on 13 February. Slovakia was the second; its secret deal was only revealed after a military plane landed on 1 March with the first 200,000 vials. The Czech Republic appears likely to be the third. On 4 March, the EU announced that a rolling review of Sputnik V data had begun – the first step towards formal authorisation to market the vaccine within the EU. At the same time, Russia was hinting that other EU member states impatient to get Sputnik V rolling were close to unilaterally approving it regardless.
On 5 March, Russia proudly announced that Sputnik V was approved in 45 countries and – as a further and indirect public endorsement – that the vaccine’s Twitter handle had received the famous blue tick. When diplomats worldwide increasingly operate in up to 280 characters at a time, this type of social media validation is not insignificant. All the more when vaccine disinformation campaigns are getting nastier. On 8 March, the day after a Wall Street Journal article on Russian attempts to undermine rival vaccines was published, the US Department of State was explicit: ‘It is very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks, and in doing so is potentially putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives every day’.
GLOBAL POSITIONING OF RUSSIA’S PRODUCT
As the coronavirus is likely to be with us all for a long time, requiring regular immunisations means Russia’s new bilateral deals to produce Sputnik V inside other countries are not likely to be shortlived. Once manufacturing is under way, and as demand is set to remain high for years, further Sputnik V deals are much more likely.
‘First-mover advantage’ has been driving vaccine diplomacy throughout this crisis. Initially, it was the race to develop a viable vaccine. Now, the first countries to come close to national immunisation and reopen their economies have a clear economic advantage; the speed of national rollouts in the UK and Israel has been stunning. Among the small number of countries able to offer a vaccine, no one has emerged as a predominant global health leader – although it is clear that Russia’s position has improved.
Moscow has been able to radiate a new impression of its biochemical prowess: instead of polonium and novichok, Sputnik V comes from Russia with love. It is helping to recast Russia’s reputation as ‘a high-tech power of knowledge rather than a petrol pump in decline’. As Dmitry Kulish of Moscow’s private science university, Skoltech, put it in a reference to Russia’s ubiquitous assault rifle still going strong after eight decades, ‘Sputnik V’s simplicity and sensitivity to temperature mean it can win just as the Kalashnikov did’.
So far, 190 economies have signed up to the global COVAX scheme to various degrees to coordinate the research, development and manufacturing of multiple Covid-19 vaccine candidates and, crucially, to negotiate their pricing so populations receive equal access regardless of income levels. COVAX aims to deliver 2 billion approved doses by the end of 2021. Russia was one of the few countries (together with the US under President Donald Trump) not to back it. In staying outside the scheme, Russia appears to be wielding greater control over its deployment of its ‘vaccine for all mankind’. It is estimated that Russia agreed to supply about 392 million doses abroad, with talks underway for at least 356 million more. But, according to data shared by analytics specialist, Airfinity, this appears a tall order: by March 2021, only about 10 million Sputnik Vs had been made.
There are several factors that could make Sputnik V’s current bounce shortlived. The inability to deliver supplies quickly is an immediate one. Russia has acknowledged its production squeeze, raising doubts about its ability to honour its vaccine pledges. It is dependent on plants in the likes of Brazil, India and South Korea upholding good manufacturing practice and delivering at speed and scale on Moscow’s promise to provide hundreds of millions of quality vials quickly. The advance of two other Russian vaccines could hinder Sputnik V by diverting resources. One is from Novosibirsk’s Vector Institute; the other, Moscow’s Chumakov Center. There are doubts within Russia that it has the capacity to roll out three together.
Secrecy surrounding vaccine contracts and price differentiation could be another tripwire within vaccine diplomacy. When it eventually transpires that one country paid more than another for the same product, the seller’s reputation as an admired global health leader will be impacted. This risk applies to all countries and manufacturers at the moment, as bilateral contracts remain shrouded in confidentiality agreements. Parallel trade – where vaccines bought by one country at a certain price are then sold to another country for a higher price – is another.
Domestic uptake of Sputnik V has also been disappointing. According to the poll by Russia’s Levada Center, the proportion of Russians ready to take Sputnik V has actually declined since December. Multiple problems of trust centred around misinformation, cynicism and reasonable hesitancy over accelerated vaccines are at play worldwide, but it cannot help Sputnik V that President Vladimir Putin does not appear to have taken it himself. Although the Kremlin continues to post images of the strong and bare-chested president, horse-riding and standing in icy water, and he has claimed one of his daughters took the vaccine, there is yet to be a picture of him rolling up his sleeve to receive Russia’s accomplishment.
The biomedical science of Sputnik V may well be genuinely welcome worldwide, once full data is available and has been appropriately interrogated. But the corresponding political ramifications of deeper and wider Russian influence globally may not be so beneficial. The UK and the US must not be blindsided to the full extent of Russian vaccine diplomacy already underway.
Helen Ramscar is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London. I.B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021.