- Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been approved in more than 40 countries, the manufacturers said.
- Many have little access to shots from Western companies like Pfizer and Moderna.
- An expert told Insider that Russia stepping in would give it a geopolitical advantage.
- Visit the Insider business section for more stories.
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is gaining ground in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
More than 40 countries have reached agreements with the manufacturers of the vaccine, many of whom have little opportunity to access the in-demand shots from Western companies operating vaccination drives in the United States and Europe.
The Russian direct investment fund, the body that backs the vaccine and handles the marketing, listed the countries in a press release on Wednesday.
- Europe: Russia, Belarus, Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary, Armenia, Montenegro, San Marino, Moldova.
- Asia: Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Syria, Mongolia, Sri Lanka.
- America: Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, Guatemala.
- Africa and Middle East: Algeria, Angola, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Republic of Guinea, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Bahrain, Lebanon, Gabon, Egypt, Ghana.
The vaccine has also been approved by the Palestinian Authority and by a unit in Bosnia-Herzegovina called the Republika Srpska, the press release said.
Of course, this is not just about public health. There is also an advantage for Russia. The drive to distribute vaccines around the world is a chance to burn out its image abroad and strengthen alliances, while most Western nations are laser-focused on their own populations.
The Sputnik deal – pushed on social media and in PR-friendly photo-ops – seems to be part of a trend called “vaccine diplomacy”.
Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of RDIF, told Insider on February 2 that he had little interest in seeing the vaccine used in the United States and only a moderate interest in sending it to Europe.
Outside of these markets, however, there is a wide field. In addition to the United States and Western Europe, relatively few doses are available from vaccine manufacturers such as AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
Nations including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have ordered adequate doses to vaccinate their populations several times, leading to allegations of hoarding. They also get their doses faster.
A mechanism aimed at providing access to the poorest countries, the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, has been slow to deliver the vaccines. The first reached Africa on Monday.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told Insider in an interview that the distribution of doses was clearly unfair.
“What should be a politically neutral scientific life-saving medical resource is divided across the world according to political and geostrategic spheres of influence,” he said.
This has created a vacuum in poorer countries.
RDIF does not hide its intentions. “Our priority is the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, the countries that are very eager to acquire Sputnik,” Dmitriev told Saudi-backed Arab News in an interview on January 18.
“Russia sells to desperate people,” Gostin said. “Governments realize that people are dying, that [COVID-19] absolutely ruining their economies and that they are losing public confidence. “
“If it were an informed and competitive market, countries could choose from a number of equally effective or more effective vaccines,” Gostin said. “They probably would not take the Russian.”
The shot has been shown to be extremely effective in clinical trials with 91.6% efficiency. But at the time, the shot was put in mistrust because the Russian government decided to start using the shot at its population months before the trials were over.
“Once a country has violated all the scientific and ethical rules of using a vaccine, it is difficult to regain trust, at least for people who have a choice,” Gostin said.
“They have a choice between doing something or giving their country some hope. And the Russian vaccine represents hope.”
Some of the countries have already received doses.
Argentina is leading the way in the number of Sputnik V vaccines administered in Latin America, where the vaccine is on the rise. It had already administered more than 270,000 first doses and 45,000 other doses by January, Reuters reported on January 28. It has ordered 20 million doses of the vaccine.
Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia and Paraguay have also received some doses and are expecting more.
The vaccine is also gaining ground in Europe, especially among Eastern European countries that are historically closer to Russia.
The Serbian prime minister received a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in December, the BBC reported on 10 February.
The country has vaccinated approx. 1.5 million of its people with a combination of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, China’s Sinovac shot and Sputnik V. Within this figure, it was not clear how many were Sputnik jabs.
“We do not care as long as they are safe and we will get them as soon as possible,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told the BBC on February 10 about the origin of the vaccines.
The small European nations of San Marino and Montenegro have also received a few thousand doses each of Sputnik V.
Some European countries have expressed interest in the vaccine, but appear to be awaiting approval from the influential European Medicines Agency. Countries can move without EMA approval, but tend not to do so.
The EMA announced that a rolling review of the Sputnik V vaccine had begun on Thursday.
Frustrated by the delays, some EU countries have decided not to wait for the EMA. Hungary was the first Member State to split from the bloc.
“Every day we spent waiting for Brussels, we would lose a hundred Hungarian lives,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian radio, The Irish Times reported on 14 February. “I do not trust one [vaccine] analysis in Brussels more than I do in a Hungarian. “
As of Thursday, Hungary had administered 19,582 doses, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control data.
Slovakia followed suit. It has purchased 2 million doses of Sputnik V and received 200,000 doses of the vaccine on Wednesday.
“It is right to buy the Russian vaccine as COVID-19 knows nothing about geopolitics,” Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic told The Moscow Times on Monday.
The former Soviet countries Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have also begun to administer Sputnik V.
Russia has shown eagerness to take advantage of the advertising opportunities offered by its vaccine distribution, often with some theaters.
The scene is practically the same in several countries. Journalists are urged to the airport runways to witness the unloading of boxes of vaccine, stamped with Sputnik V and the RDIF logo or draped with a Russian flag.
Here is Paraguay:
And here is Slovakia:
Africa could have been a tougher sale of the Russian vaccine, as the continent has a close relationship with the Chinese government, which has invested heavily in infrastructure development in Africa.
However, China has been slow to deliver vaccines there, and the African Union has already secured 3 million doses from Russia, which are due to arrive in May.
They want a price. The RDIF had announced that the vaccine would be “two or more times cheaper” than mRNA vaccines such as Pfizers. But the price, just under $ 10 a shot, ended up being far more than what AU pays for shots from AstraZeneca ($ 3) or Pfizer ($ 6.75), the Financial Times reported last week.
Algeria began vaccinating with Sputnik V on January 30, and Egypt granted the vaccine an emergency use permit on February 24.
In the Middle East, Iran began vaccinating with Sputnik V on 9 February. The first dose was administered to Iran’s health minister’s son to ease public distrust of the vaccine, Al Jazeera reported.
The United Arab Emirates gave the vaccine emergency approval on January 21, before the late-stage test results were published.
The Palestinian Authority has also administered some doses of the shot after Russia sent 1,000 doses of Sputnik V and the UAE another 20,000 doses of Sputnik V.
For Gostin, the health expert, geopolitical advantage is not the only driving force behind Russia’s strategy.
“This is a kind of way of demonstrating that Russia’s technological prowess is the same as the West,” Gostin told Insider.
“It’s no coincidence that it was called Sputnik, because it’s really reminiscent of the race to the moon with the United States.
“The truth is, you have Russia playing vaccine policy, trying to gain a geostrategic advantage and strengthening their image abroad. Then you have Europe, the United States, Britain and Canada providing vaccines and robbing lower-income countries.
“I do not know that leaders in Europe and the United States can see themselves in the mirror and feel any kind of ethical superiority.”