When Russia announced last November that its coronavirus vaccine was 92% effective, the news was greeted with hope but also with much skepticism.
The secrecy surrounding clinical trials and the “rush” criticized by some of the scientific community did not inspire much confidence, not even in Russians themselves.
Today, three months after that announcement, things seem to have changed greatly.
Russians are slowly beginning to trust their vaccine and its efficacy was recently endorsed by the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet.
Many countries, especially in Latin America, knock on Russia’s doors to negotiate doses of its promising compound, and Russia has not been slow to respond and offer its support.
Even in Europe there has been interest in Sputnik.
Josep Borrell, high representative of Foreign Policy and Security of the EU, recently assured that the approval for its use of the vaccine by the European Medicines Agency – still in a preliminary phase – “would be good news, because as you know we are facing a vaccine shortage“.
Experts consulted by BBC Mundo assure that the success of this vaccine, produced with state funds, will result in a positive image blow and an important geopolitical instrument for Russia in countries with fewer resources.
But how did the scenario evolve in just a few months?
Development “too fast”
In August 2020, Russia announced that the Gamaleya State Institute was developing a vaccine against the coronavirus.
Television, also state-run, presented this fact as proof of the country’s scientific leadership, just like when the launch of the first man-made satellite was announced 60 years ago.
The name of that satellite? Yes, the same as the vaccine: Sputnik.
This compound uses the viral vector technique, injecting a different and less harmful virus with genes from the coronavirus spike protein to create an immune response.
Despite the hype that the vaccine was as effective as the US Pfizer and Moderna, both with percentages of protection greater than 90%, the russians did not come immediately when mass vaccination started in December.
Oleg Boldyrev, a journalist for the Russian BBC service in Moscow, says there was a lot of skepticism at the start of the campaign about how quickly the vaccine had been created.
“Many Russians were suspicious of the opaque nature of their registration and the excessive enthusiasm of government officials. President Vladimir Putin had also not been vaccinated. None of this helped build confidence,” reports Boldyrev.
Progressive recovery of confidence
Recent surveys in Russia indicate that although confidence in the vaccine is gradually being established, there is still a considerable sample that does not trust it at all and wants to know more evidence about its effectiveness.
However, skeptics may begin to be swayed after the effectiveness data published in The Lancet, although some data from clinical trials remain unavailable and There are many questions that the Gamaleya Institute must answer.
The most critical accuse the scientists of not being completely transparent, but “the endorsement of The Lancet is without a doubt a great boost of optimism for the distribution of Sputnik V worldwide”, says Boldyrev.
It should also be noted that, although it does not require Pfizer’s extreme storage temperatures, it does need to be stored at low temperatures, around 8 ° C, and this can make it difficult to distribute, as indeed happens outside of large cities in Russia. .
According to an independent analysis, less than 1.5 million Russians have received the first dose of the vaccine. At this rate, it would take about three years to vaccinate half of its population of 145 million.
Opportunity for the less wealthy
“This is a watershed moment for us,” Kirill Dmitriev, executive director of the Russian Fund for Direct Investment, the state body that funded the vaccine, said in an interview with Bloomberg.
The Russian government reports that many of the eight million doses already manufactured will be shipped to those countries that ordered them a few months ago.
A dozen countries have shown interest. Among them are allies of Moscow, such as Hungary or Iran, and also a good number of Latin American states such as Mexico, Paraguay, Venezuela or Colombia.
In Argentina and Bolivia, in fact, the population has already begun to be inoculated with the Russian compound.
“Sputnik V comes at a crucial moment for Latin America,” Vanni Pettinà, an expert on Russian foreign relations at the Colegio de México, told BBC Mundo.
“The countries of the region do not have their own technology to develop their vaccines or enough money to buy the very expensive private vaccines that have been approved,” adds the expert.
In this sense, Pettinà predicts that the state nature of Sputnik V will facilitate its distribution and purchase by countries with fewer resources.
And this fact will undoubtedly also favor a geopolitical use that Putin can use very well at his convenience.
“Being state-owned, Putin can literally decide how many doses to give, at what prices and to whom. And all of this will be conditioned by the Kremlin’s political and strategic evaluations,” Pettinà adds.
“It is clear that Russia will use the vaccine as a geopolitical instrument to increase what we call ‘soft power‘(soft power) between states with fewer resources and also other private companies to which it sells its patents, “explains Mira Milosevich, an expert on Russia and Eurasia for the Elcano Royal Institute.
“During the Cold War, soft power was imposed with sports and chess, now the Russians use the vaccine,” adds Milosevich.
Errors and weaknesses of the US and Europe
While the first vaccines, such as those from Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca, received the go-ahead from medical authorities and began to be distributed and inoculated, optimism gripped the richest countries, which began to look closer to success about the pandemic.
The reality has proven to be more complicated.
Pharmaceuticals have experienced notorious interruptions in distribution, especially evident in the EU, which a few weeks ago became involved in a notorious dispute with AstraZeneca after accusing it of missing vaccine delivery deadlines.
“The West does not have much flexibility to manage its vaccines because it does not control themThey are private products, and that is why it is more exposed to price blackmail and non-transparent contracts, “says Pettinà.
The academic points out certain “errors and weaknesses” of both the EU and the US that Russia can use very well.
“The withdrawal of US foreign policy issues during the Trump administration and the complexity and slowness of the EU political structure open a space that the Kremlin can use to improve its image and influence in countries with fewer resources” , Explain.
“This is easy to explain, Russia is an opportunistic power and has seen that while the US and the EU prioritize supplying themselves and are unable to supply less developed countries, it takes the opportunity to bring the vaccine to these territories, also in Latin America, “Milosevich agrees.
“This will make Russia increase its influence in the region, already easier to expand due to the traditional interactions with Cuba and other socialist governments of the XXI century such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina or Bolivia”, completes Pettinà.
Long history of Russian scientific might
Sputnik V will not be the end of the investigation against the coronavirus. There are two more vaccines that Russian scientists are enrolling.
“Once again, there will surely be questions about the veracity of the scientific data accompanying the efficacy announcements,” says Boldyrev.
Despite Russian doubts and secrecy, Pettinà believes that the scientific and technological record of this country should not be underestimated.
“Secrecy is closely linked to the Soviet security heritage, but it should not be forgotten that Russia was a power during the Cold War and that continues to invest heavily in science and technology“.
That the Russian vaccine works and is so effective is undoubtedly great news for the world, but, like the other vaccines, it does not escape the many questions that remain open.
How long will the protection last? Will it also be effective against the most contagious new variants emerging in the world?
Everything seems to indicate that the time remaining in the fight against the pandemic is still unknown.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.