By the end of this year, a large part of the world population will have been vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s good because it will finally put a stop to the pandemic. At the same time, however, it is clear that vaccine development and distribution is not just about health policy goals, but also about international prestige – and big business.
In the race for the first vaccine, a so-called “first mover advantage situation” arose last year: if you are the first to present a ready-to-use vaccine that people trust, you will receive a disproportionately large piece of the pie. While the most promising vaccine candidates with Biontech / Pfizer and Moderna come from private companies in Western countries, there is also competition – especially from China and Russia.
In Russia no independent authorities are holding back approval
The Russian version “Sputnik V” was not developed privately, but by the state Gamaleja Institute for Epidemology in Moscow. It was not only responsible for the development, but also for the approval and marketing of the vaccine – while in Western countries producers, political decision-makers, consumer advocates and regulatory authorities each have different demands on a vaccine.
The advantages of the Russian variant are obvious: Everything is much faster. The vaccine was the first to be registered worldwide in August and the first Russians were vaccinated as early as October. Mass vaccination on a voluntary basis then started shortly before those in the US and Europe in early December. By the end of the year, according to the prognosis, 80 percent of citizens will have been immunized with the state’s own vaccine.
But the disadvantages of the Russian project also quickly became apparent. While the later approval of Western vaccines is an expression of the fact that medium-term study results had to be awaited and verified by independent bodies, the Russian study results did not meet international standards – approval was granted before the important phase III study, which caused a lot of head shaking. The world initially had to be satisfied with the information issued by the Russian Ministry of Health that Sputnik V was as effective as its competitors.
“So far there is no vaccine for such as me”
Not only Western experts were therefore initially skeptical, but the Russians themselves reacted rather cautiously to the free vaccination offer. Only 42 percent want to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. The fact that Vladimir Putin has not yet had the vaccine administered himself certainly did not have a confidence-building effect.
The 68-year-old declared in early December: “I am a law-abiding person. I stick to the recommendations. So far there is no vaccine for people like me. I’ll do that as soon as possible ”. In fact, the Russian vaccine was initially not approved for use in patients over 60 years of age, as expected side effects such as fever can be more severe than with the western alternatives.
A few days ago, however, the approval for patients over 60 took place in Russia. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov then declared on state television that Putin would be vaccinated. But he did not give an exact time, but remained vague: “He is waiting for all the formalities to be dealt with.”
The Russian numbers can be “called propaganda”
Although Russia has promised the WHO detailed study results, the world public is still dependent on the official figures. The fact that the Russian statistics authority only had to drastically correct the number of victims for the country upwards on December 28th confirms the suspicion of many that the official figures from the country on sensitive topics should be viewed with caution.
The political scientist Andreas Umland even described the figures on the effectiveness of Sputnik V compared to “t-online” as “euphemistic”, “speculative” and concluded that they could safely be called “propaganda”.
The self-image of the Russian vaccine developers is already clear from the name Sputnik V. Under the name Sputnik IV, the Soviet Union sent the world’s first satellite into orbit around the earth in 1958, demonstrating to the West that the country was scientifically superior.
Sputnik V is made using adenoviruses – not mRNA methods
The special features of the Russian vaccine variant can be explained by the fact that it is produced using adenoviruses – a classic method for vaccine development. The vaccines from Moderna and Biontech, on the other hand, work with the new mRNA method, which originally comes from cancer research.
But the adenovirus method also has decisive advantages. In particular, these vaccines do not have to be cooled so laboriously. Maintaining extremely low temperatures throughout the supply chain is actually one of the biggest problems facing mRNA vaccines, limiting their global availability.
Added to this is the price of Sputnik V, which is relatively low at under $ 20. In addition to Russia, the Russia-related regimes in Belarus and Serbia have therefore also started using Sputnik V. After his vaccination, the Serbian minister Vulin said in front of the camera, in the spirit of Putin: “I really wanted a Russian vaccine because I believe in Russian medicine”. With that he had “fulfilled a small wish”.
Sputnik V finds buyers worldwide
Against resistance in the EU Commission, Hungary, which is also friendly to Putin, was the first EU country to be allowed to test Sputnik V in its own country.
In order to further boost exports, Russia has also announced a light version of the vaccine that will not be used domestically, but will only be exported. Of this only one instead of two cans is necessary, which further depresses the price. However, according to Russian information, it only protects against infection for around three to four months.
In view of the relatively simple logistics and the lower price, it is hardly surprising that, despite its shortcomings, Sputnik V is extremely interesting for many countries in the global south, which will miss out on the first batches of western vaccine distribution.
Sputnik V could play an important role in a global vaccination strategy
In Argentina and Guinea, Sputnik V has already been officially approved and vaccination campaigns have started. According to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, 1.2 billion cans were ordered at the beginning of October and interest from 50 countries was expressed. 100 million cans are to be delivered to India, 50 million to Brazil, 35 million to Uzbekistan, 32 million to Mexico and 25 million each to Egypt and Nepal.
It is extremely unlikely that Sputnik V could have serious, previously unknown disadvantages or be ineffective. Even if the actual effectiveness of the vaccine were to be significantly worse than the official figures suggest, that does not mean that it is completely useless. Due to its simplified logistics, Sputnik V could play an important role in a global vaccination strategy.
Western countries have also recognized this. According to reports in the “Tagesspiegel”, Merkel negotiated directly with Putin about “possible perspectives for joint vaccine production” in order to compensate for production bottlenecks in Russia. In addition, the British company Astrazeneca, which has already developed its own vaccine, wants to work with the developers of Sputnik V in the future, with the aim of improving both vaccines.
So far, almost all vaccines from Moderna and Biontech have been hoarded by rich countries
Nevertheless, the story of Sputnik V shows that the global race for vaccine development – despite repeated claims to the contrary – is above all about prestige, geopolitical influence and economic gain.
The West, which has not developed a global distribution strategy, is also to blame for this. So far, all of Moderna’s vaccine doses and 96 percent of Pfizer / BioNTech’s vaccine doses have been bought up by rich countries. While all Germans are said to have been offered a vaccination as early as the summer, only 18 percent of the world’s population will be able to be vaccinated by the end of 2021. This – and not too few vaccine doses for Germany – is the real “vaccination failure”. And it is precisely this global vaccine vacuum that autocracies like Russia and China are now all too happy to fill profitably with their own vaccines.