MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s boast in August that it was the first country to authorize a coronavirus vaccine sparked skepticism at the time due to insufficient testing. Six months later, as demand for the Sputnik V vaccine grows, experts are raising questions again, this time about whether Moscow can keep up with all the requests from countries that want it.
Slovakia received 200,000 doses on March 1, despite the fact that the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began reviewing their use on Thursday in an accelerated process. The president of the Czech Republic, who was hit hard, said he wrote directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a supply. Millions of doses are expected in countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East in a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.
“Sputnik V continues to conquer Europe with confidence,” host Olga Skabeyeva told the state television channel Russia-1.
Dmitry Kiselev, the network’s main pro-Kremlin host, heaped on hyperbole last month, boasting: “The Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, is the best in the world.”
State television channels have covered vaccine exports extensively, citing praise from abroad for Russia and offering segments on the difficulties countries are having with Western vaccines.
Early criticism of Sputnik V has been mitigated by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that said large-scale tests showed it to be safe, with a 91% efficacy rate against the virus.
That could help reshape Russia’s image to one of scientific, technological, and benevolent power, especially when other countries find COVID-19 vaccine shortages because richer nations are acquiring Western-made versions or manufacturers struggle with a capacity to limited production.
“The fact that Russia is among the five countries that were able to rapidly develop a vaccine … allows Moscow to present itself as a high-tech knowledge powerhouse rather than a declining gasoline pump,” the foreign affairs analyst said. Vladimir Frolov.
Some experts say boosting the use of vaccines from China and Russia, which have not been as popular as those from the West, could offer a faster way to increase global supply. Others point out that Russia wants to add geopolitical points.
“Putin is using (the vaccine) to reinforce a very tarnished image of Russia’s scientific and technological prowess,” said Lawrence Gostin, professor at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Health Law. National and Global. “He is using it for geostrategic purposes in areas where Russia would like to have spheres of influence.”
Whether Russia can deliver is another question. China has supplied millions of doses to other countries, but the production of Sputnik V appears for now to be much less than the demand.
“They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in terms of this vaccine really being a viable and marketable product,” said Judy Twigg, a political science professor specializing in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They have made all these explicit and implicit promises to people inside and outside Russia about access to this now unexpectedly great product. And now they are stuck trying, struggling, trying to figure out how to deliver on all those promises.”
Russia must also take care of its own. Authorities have announced plans to vaccinate 60% of adults, or approximately 68 million people, by the end of June.
National deployment in Russia has been slow, compared to other nations, with around 4 million people, or less than 3% of the population, vaccinated at the end of February. Some of that could also be due to widespread reluctance among Russians to trust vaccines.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which financed and markets the vaccine abroad, has not responded to a request for comment on how many doses will go to other countries. He previously said that he has received requests for 2.4 billion doses from more than 50 countries.
Airfinity, a London-based scientific analysis company, estimates that Russia has agreed to supply about 392 million doses abroad, and there are talks with countries for at least another 356 million.
Judging from production and exports so far, “Russia is a long way from being able to deliver this,” said Rasmus Hansen, CEO and founder of Airfinity.
Russia manufactured just over 2 million doses last year amid reports from local producers having trouble purchasing equipment and making the second component of the two-shot vaccine.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on February 20 that more than 10 million doses of Sputnik V.
Sputnik V is a viral vector vaccine, which uses a harmless virus that carries genetic material to stimulate the immune system. Producing it is a complicated process, said Elena Subbotina, a consultant for the Central and Eastern Europe team at pharmaceutical consultancy CBPartners. Producers cannot guarantee stable production because working with biological ingredients involves a lot of variability in terms of the quality of the finished product.
Some countries that have been offered large batches of Sputnik V have not yet approved its use.
In India, which has committed to 125 million doses, the vaccine is undergoing studies to determine whether it produces a comparable immune response. Brazil’s health ministry said it is negotiating the purchase of 10 million doses, but the country’s regulatory agency has yet to authorize their use. Nepal, which has been offered 25 million doses, has also not given its approval.
Other countries have had delays in receiving shipments from Sputnik V.
Argentina received almost 2.5 million doses on March 1, although at one point the government expected 5 million in January and more than 14 million in February. Officials in Hungary, who agreed to buy 2 million doses over three months, said on January 22 that they expected 600,000 doses in the first 30 days, but only received 325,600 in early March. Mexico signed an agreement for 24 million doses and expected to receive 400,000 in February, but only received 200,000.
Russia’s Direct Investment Fund has agreements with manufacturers in countries such as Brazil, South Korea and India to boost production, but there is little indication that manufacturers abroad have produced large quantities of the vaccine so far.
Brazilian company Uniao Química is in the pilot testing phase, the results of which will be shared with Russia before the company can produce it for sale. Indian drugmaker Hetero Biopharma, with an agreement to produce 100 million doses, was set to start production in early 2021, but it is unclear if it has actually started.
South Korean company GL Rapha, which expects to produce 150 million doses this year, will be making finished products sometime in March, company official Kim Gi-young said.
Russia has so far not faced any criticism for delaying the supply of Sputnik V to other countries, and foreign officials are optimistic about the deals.
Hungary is still waiting for large shipments, but expressed optimism about receiving them.
“The Russian side, with minimal delay, will comply with the 600,000 doses agreed in the first phase, and then with 1.4 million additional doses,” Hungarian Secretary of State Tamas Menczer said last month. Prime Minister Viktor Orban added on Friday: “The Russians are practically keeping their promises.”
Promising more than can be delivered appears to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and it is also a real risk for Russia, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies.
“They have won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” he said. “But the problem is, how are they going to implement it?”
Associated Press writers Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, India; David Biller in Rio de Janeiro; Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Justin Spike and Bela Szandelszky in Budapest, Hungary; and Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed.
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