Did we underestimate Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine?

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But now, Sputnik V — named after the world’s first satellite that saw the Soviets initially outpace the Americans in the space race — is starting to look like it could be a global success story. It got a boost last week after the respected British medical journal the Lancet published a peer-reviewed paper that found the vaccine had 91.6 percent efficacy 21 days after the first shot and 91.8 percent for those over 60 years old, placing it on par with the celebrated Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

More than a dozen countries have approved the vaccine for use, with more likely to follow now that it has received the Lancet’s seal of approval. Sputnik V is considerably cheaper than its Western competitors and does not require the same sort of ultracold storage infrastructure that would complicate distribution of the Pfizer vaccine in much of the developing world.

“This is a watershed moment for us,” Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is behind both Sputnik V’s development and its international rollout, told Bloomberg News.

And it could amount to a rare soft-power victory for the Kremlin. “It does say something about the quality and integrity of the scientific enterprise within Russia, which a lot of people disparage or dismiss as decayed and obsolete and underfinanced and underpowered, and that so many of their scientists had fled to greener pastures in Europe and North America,” Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told my colleague Robyn Dixon. “This would seem to fly in the face of that.”

Experts speaking to Dixon cautioned that this achievement may be something of an “outlier” and does not herald a Russian scientific renaissance. But it does come on the heels of a major national research strategy implemented by President Vladimir Putin in recent years, including investments in universities and research labs.

On multiple continents, governments have turned to administering Sputnik V. This week, Iran began inoculating its health-care workers with the Russian vaccine ahead of a broader push toward immunization in a country weakened by economic sanctions and home to the pandemic’s worst outbreak in the Middle East. Russia and Iran also agreed a deal for the Iranians to start manufacturing the vaccine by April. Plans are already in motion for Sputnik V to be mass produced in India, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea, while Russia has promised free vaccinations to its entire population.

Six countries in Latin America, beginning with Argentina, have begun distributing it to their citizens. “The Russian Sputnik V vaccine is safe, it has 92 percent efficacy against COVID, it can be used safely and is effective in seniors,” Hugo López-Gatell, the Mexican government’s chief pandemic spokesperson, told reporters last week. “It allows us now to accelerate the step of vaccination against COVID in Mexico.” Last month, Mexico announced the purchase of 24 million Sputnik doses.

Perhaps the biggest prize — at least, in geopolitical terms — is Europe. Dogged by production shortages and failures in procurement, E.U. countries have flagged in their vaccination efforts compared with the United States and Britain. This week, Hungary announced its approval of Sputnik V and received 40,000 doses of the vaccine. “The vaccine cannot be a political question,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state radio last month. “One can only choose between western and eastern vaccines when you have enough.”

It’s piquing interest further west, too. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that she would welcome the Russian vaccine within the bloc as long as it passed the approval of E.U. regulators.

That openness stands in stark contrast to tensions between the two powers on other fronts. In Brussels, attention focused on what’s been viewed as a shambolic trip to Moscow by Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, who went to the Russian capital in the aftermath of the controversial jailing of prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The veteran diplomat bore an olive branch but returned humiliated.

“The trip, which was capped by Russia’s expulsion of three E.U. diplomats over their alleged participation in protests about Navalny, was so disastrous it appears to have prompted Borrell to rethink his stance on sanctioning Russia for the activist’s poisoning and imprisonment,” wrote my colleague Michael Birnbaum. “Asked at Friday’s news conference about the prospect of punitive E.U. measures, he said no. On Tuesday, there was a shift: He said he would propose measures that ‘could include sanctions.’ ”

Kremlin critics want President Biden and his allies in Europe to take a firm line against the Russian regime. At the very least, they should “stop giving Putin and other authoritarian regimes leverage and legitimacy with trade deals, memberships and access,” exiled dissident Garry Kasparov wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece. “Lecturing dictators about human rights is meaningless if you’re also taking their oil, gas and cash.” But what about their vaccines?

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