A shipment of doses of the Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is transported after arriving at the Ezeiza International Airport, in Buenos Aires, Argentina – AGUSTIN MARCARIAN/REUTERS
It has been a long time since the Kremlin could claim a true soft-power victory: but in the development of its coronavirus vaccine, it appears to have finally found one.
The Sputnik V, which was last week revealed to be 92 per cent effective by the latest trial data, was named after the satellite that Moscow sent into orbit in a world-first in 1957.
The vaccine’s rushed registration last August was met with deep scepticism. But now the cheap, easy-to-transport jab is drawing envious glances from around the world, winning new friends in poorer countries and breaking ice with geopolitical rivals.
Even after Moscow began a rollout to its citizens last year, there was widespread doubt about the value of the Sputnik V. Full trial data had not been released, many Russians noted, while the Kremlin’s announcement that it was slightly more effective than the Moderna and Pfizer jabs was taken in the West as mere propaganda.
That changed with the release of Sputnik V’s late-stage trial data, showing in a publication in the highly respected Lancet that the vaccine did indeed rival the efforts of Western science.
A student of the Makarov Pacific Higher Naval School is vaccinated with the first component of the Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) COVID-19 vaccine – Yuri Smityuk /TASS
To many Russians, this was a shock. The country has a proud history of developing inoculations – the first polio jab was tested in Soviet Russia in 1959 – but underfunding and brain drain has badly hampered the sector. (Some muttered darkly about accusations from the West that its labs had been the victims of Russian cyber-attacks).
The Gamaleya Institute in Moscow has a proud scientific history dating back to the 19th century and in recent years developed clinically approved vaccines for Ebola and MERS, but the institute’s statement early last year that its staff self-administered the Sputnik V vaccine before the official start of clinical trials drew strong criticism in the scientific community.
The Sputnik V’s first takers were found in developing nations that struggled to get their hands on Western vaccines had so plumped for Russia’s $10-a-jab offering – and that trickle has become a rush with the emergence of verified positive results.
By Friday, 26 countries including the United Arab Emirates, Hungary and Pakistan have approved Russia’s vaccine, with new countries signing on almost daily.
Iran, which has seen the worst outbreak in the Middle East, earlier this week launched its inoculation campaign with the Russian jab by putting the son of the country’s health minister on live TV to receive the first dose.
On the other side of the world, Argentina, which has now recorded two million confirmed cases of Covid-19, led the way in Latin America by inoculating thousands of healthcare workers with Sputnik V at the end of December.
“The reputational baggage of this country is so bad that no one was expecting anything good from the vaccine,” Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre told the Telegraph.
Initially focusing on getting the vaccine out to poor countries was sensible, he added, as they came to resent the vaccine-hogging of Western powers.
“It’s a very clever move from the point of view of diplomacy targeting the countries that are struggling to get the vaccines from richer nations,” Mr Gabuev said.
“(The Kremlin) is counting on strengthening Russia’s image in developing countries, and it’s also about business: Russia has been selling the vaccine, and it is hoping to convert this into business deals including oil and gas further down the line.”
The big prize, of course, would be securing approval from the EU – even as the bloc issues almost daily condemnations of the Kremlin over the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny. And victory appears within reach.
The European Medicines Agency said on Wednesday that it was in talks with the Gamaleya Institute to map out the next steps after it applied for approval.
People wait to receive doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the basket ball court at the River Plate stadium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina – MATIAS BAGLIETTO/REUTERS
Hungary will on Friday become the first EU nation to start using Sputnik V, the country’s chief medical officer said.
Hungary broke ranks with the EU last month by becoming the first bloc member to approve the Russian jab, ordering two million doses to be delivered over three months, enough to vaccinate one million people.
“Today we are beginning to vaccinate with the Sputnik V vaccine, this is taking place in the designated vaccination stations,” Cecilia Muller told a press briefing on Friday.
Family doctors in Budapest could choose five persons each to send for the jab at four hospitals in the capital, Ms Muller said, as part of an initial round of inoculations using the first batch of 2,800 doses sent from Russia.
Andrej Babis, the Czech prime minister, last week said that Prague would consider using Sputnik V even without the European regulatory approval.
He said on Wednesday that the Czech Republic, which has been badly hit by the pandemic, could buy the vaccine and have it ready in storage as soon as the EU approves it.
Saddled with growing anger over a slow rollout in the home country of the Pfizer jab, German authorities have offered support and possible production sites for Sputnik V.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who was one of President Putin’s staunchest critics over the poisoning of Mr Navalny who was convalescing in a Berlin hospital, has reached out to the Russian president to talk about possible cooperation, saying that “every vaccine is welcome” in the EU.
The Sputnik V’s developers hope that an upcoming trial in Azerbaijan of using their vaccine alongside the AstraZeneca jab could lead to potential registration in Britain.
Already, the Kremlin has seized proudly on the news that the EU has given its diplomats the green light to take it themselves.
President Vladimir Putin will be hoping that the name of Alexei Navalny – now locked up for three years in Russian prison – will fade from foreign lips amid the growing clamour for the Sputnik V.