FOCUS on Vaccine Diplomacy: Russia

Luisa Chainferber
Senior Correspondent

The global effort against COVID-19 is intensifying as countries race to vaccinate their populations and use vaccine diplomacy to improve relations with foreign nations. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine now has emergency authorization in more than 30 countries and a peer-reviewed efficacy rate of 91.6 percent in Phase 3 trials, reports the New York Times Vaccine Tracker. Researchers are currently working on a single-dose version of Sputnik V, which would be called “Sputnik Light.”

On its official website, the vaccine’s producers note that Sputnik V was the first registered COVID-19 vaccine in the world. The vaccine is now being produced in several countries such as India, South Korea, Kazakhstan, and Brazil. While the website explains that the price per dose can vary due to logistics and production costs, it sets the maximum price per dose at $10, and markets Sputnik V as the “vaccine for all mankind.”

Despite its branding, Russia’s vaccine is facing skepticism globally, reports the Washington Post. Russia is fighting claims by the U.S. State Department that Moscow’s intelligence agencies sought to politicize Sputnik’s Western competitors by publishing false information online about Western vaccines. 

Like other countries, Russia is seeking to gain geopolitical momentum from its COVID-19 vaccine. For example, while Western pharmaceutical companies are charging African states more than double the per-dose price they charge for wealthier countries, Moscow offered the African Union 300 million doses of its vaccine as well as a financing package, reports the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

This offer can be interpreted as a geopolitical move, as both China and Russia started to seek ways to meet African countries’ vaccination needs following the lack of Western interest in the region, reports Reuters. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is responsible for the international marketing of Russia’s vaccine, admitted that “Africa is one of the key markets for Sputnik V.” The offers made to African countries could become some of the largest vaccine contracts to date, even though the offer occurred while Russia itself was still struggling to start its national vaccination campaign, reports Reuters on an earlier news piece.  

Besides African nations, Russia is also reaching Latin American states through vaccine diplomacy. According to CNN, Russia already delivered vaccines to Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay. As countries lifted lockdowns and sought vaccines, Sputnik V became an attractive option for Latin America given its lower price compared to other vaccines, such as the Pfizer-BioNTech. 

Given the limited supply of Western vaccines, Moscow found itself with an opportunity to gain geopolitical influence in South America, reports the Wall Street Journal. Thomas Shannon, a former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, noted, “What the coronavirus has done and what the vaccines have done is give Russia another opportunity to build relationships in South America,” which had weakened following the end of the Cold War. 

Sputnik V is gaining more acceptance in Europe despite initial criticisms regarding Moscow’s quick approval of the vaccine. Thomas Mertens, head of Germany’s standing commission on vaccination, said that Sputnik V is “a good vaccine that will presumably also be approved in the EU at some point,” reports the Guardian

Additionally, according to the Associated Press, Russia signed a deal with Italy on March 10 to begin the production of Sputnik V for the first time in the European Union. While the European Medicines Agency expressed concerns regarding the safety of Moscow’s vaccine and compared it to “Russian roulette,” countries in the EU such as Slovakia and Hungary are already seeking to obtain the vaccine. Despite the concerns for the political implications of the Russian vaccine, many experts emphasize the importance of different vaccines, including Sputnik V, to ensure a faster vaccination campaign globally.  

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