‘Sputnik V’ and the geopolitics of global vaccination production
By Robynne Grant, BSc Politics and International Relations Student at the University of Bristol
As we approach the one-year milestone since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic (Cuccinotta and Vanelli, 2020), the onset of mass vaccination across the UK offers hope for the way of life we’ve collectively mourned. The stark competition to roll out the first vaccine has espoused the hallmarks of the ‘space race’, with over 200 vaccine candidates in development across the globe (WHO, 2021). While intense competition is proven to produce results in more limited timeframes, many warn of the dangers of such rivalry. Peter Drobac, an infectious disease medic at Oxford University, has warned that “geopolitics – being able to claim victory – may put pressure on other countries to cut corners on safety and effectiveness as well” (Aljazeera, 2020). This article seeks to track the development of Russia’s ‘Sputnik V’, analysing the geopolitical factors surrounding its global production and distribution.
A ‘Sputnik moment’ for Russia
After pledging 1.4 billion rubles (£13.9 million) to vaccine development earlier in the year (Stone, 2020), Russia become the first nation to announce its candidate in August 2020 – dubbed ‘Sputnik V’ to resonate with internationally recognisable Russian symbolism (Balakrishnan, 2020). The following month, The Lancet published the results of its one and two phase studies, which claimed “a good safety profile and…strong humoral and cellular immune responses in participants” (Logunov et al, 2020), but did not pertain to the effectiveness of the vaccine.
The vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya research institute in coordination with the Russian defence ministry, was controversially released to civilians while still embarking on Phase three clinical trials. The announcement was met with much scepticism, with many critical of the decision to grant regulatory approval based on test results from just a few dozen people (Litvinova, 2020). Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, branded the decision ‘unethical’, with others highlighting that a public failure could undermine the entire global enterprise of vaccine production (Callaway, 2020). Lowe (2020) branded the move a “ridiculous publicity stunt…supposed to make Russia look like some sort of biotechnology powerhouse”, accusing Russia of “beating its chest in this fashion and using the pandemic to declare the superiority of its system or its scientists”. In spite of widespread criticism, trials continued and in November 2020 a statement was issues by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) suggesting ‘Sputnik V’ was showing a 92% efficacy rate (Magnay, 2020a).
‘Sputnik V’ and public trust
While an estimated 100,000 Russians had already been vaccinated over the summer months (Magnay, 2020b), the news that the UK had become the first Western nation to license a vaccine in early December (Boseley and Halliday, 2020) spurred Russian officials to execute a mass vaccination ‘launch’. However, low levels of public trust have hampered the vaccination drive. The first day of registrations saw only 17 people sign up to be vaccinated across the designated 70 polyclinics within Moscow (Magnay, 2020b). This is indicative of wider levels of
distrust in the Russian healthcare system, with the Levada Center finding that around 59% of the population “would not get the coronavirus vaccine even if it was free of cost and voluntary” (Business Today, 2020). Furthermore, Ipsos found that of 27 countries polled, Russia exhibited the highest levels of vaccine scepticism (Business Today, 2020). Given that social trust in Russia is so intimately tied with Putin’s person (Hosking, 2012: 63), the announcement two days after Christmas that Putin himself will receive the vaccine came as no surprise (The Guardian, 2020). Whether this will have any bearing on rates of vaccination uptake remains to be seen.
An East/West divide?
The geopolitics of COVID-19 vaccine distribution has manifested along the lines of existing global alliances and tensions. Belarus, a close ally, became the first country outside Russia to register the vaccine (Reuters, 2020a). Collaboration within the BRICS group has also been a factor, with India and Brazil both signing lucrative manufacturing contracts to produce ‘Sputnik V’ for global and domestic distribution (The Economic Times, 2020; Aljazeera, 2020).
As of December 2020, over 50 countries have put in requests to purchase or produce the vaccine (Light, 2020), almost all from the Global East. In contrast, Western nations have met Eastern-produced products, including China’s offering, with extreme cynicism – despite displaying near-identical efficacy rates. This is indicative of greater issues surrounding the repeated privileging of Western sites of knowledge production on COVID-19 (Zhang and Xu, 2020).
This East/West divide has also caused tensions to rise in the EU as Hungary looked to back Russia’s ‘Sputnik V’ over the offerings of Western pharma-giants last November. Brussels warned Hungary, an ex-member of the Eastern bloc, against purchasing the non-EMA approved vaccine, citing marked safety concerns and the potential to damage levels of overall trust in future efforts (Guarascio, 2020). This clash is one of a many between the two entities over Hungary’s pursuit of close relations with Russia. Hungary ultimately yielded, citing "inadequate manufacturing capacity" of the vaccine (RFE/RL, 2020).
While it’s impossible to predict how the coming months will play out, that if the polls are to be believed then Russia may be unable to roll out enough vaccinations to reach herd immunity, which could be devastating for macro-economic stability. What is clear is that despite cynicism at home, Russia is set to make gains from the diplomatic relations built through collaboration and trade of the vaccine, further cementing global East/West divides reminiscent of the Soviet period. Russia’s ‘Sputnik V’ is proving a vital resource for countries outside of the Western sphere, which have otherwise struggled to get their hands on the multitude of doses needed to begin mass inoculations (Twohey et al., 2020).
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