MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s boasting in August that it was the first country to allow a coronavirus vaccine led to skepticism at the time due to insufficient testing. Six months later, as demand for the Sputnik V vaccine grows, experts are again raising questions – this time about whether Moscow can handle all orders from countries that want it.
Slovakia received 200,000 doses on March 1st, although the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began a review of its use in an accelerated process on Thursday. The president of the badly injured Czech Republic said he had written directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to receive delivery. Millions of doses are expected from countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East in a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.
“Sputnik V continues to confidently conquer Europe,”
Dmitry Kiselev, the network’s largest pro-Kremlin anchor, accumulated hyperbole last month, shouting, “Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, is the best in the world.”
State television channels widely cover vaccine exports, citing praise from abroad for Russia and broadcasting segments about the difficulties the countries are experiencing with Western vaccines.
Sputnik V’s early criticism was blunted by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, which said large-scale tests showed it was safe, with a 91% effectiveness against the virus.
This could help reshape Russia’s image to a scientific, technological and well-meaning force, especially when other countries face a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, as richer countries draw on Western-made versions or manufacturers struggle with limited production capacity.
“The fact that Russia is among the five countries that were able to quickly develop a vaccine … allows Moscow to present itself as a high-tech force of knowledge, rather than a declining gas station,” said foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov.
Some experts say increasing the use of vaccines from China and Russia – which were not as popular as those in the West – may offer a faster way to increase global supply. Others note that Russia wants to gain geopolitical points.
“Putin is using the (vaccine) to bolster a very tainted image of Russia’s scientific and technological power,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization’s Center for National and Global Health Law. “He uses it for geostrategic purposes in areas where Russia would like to have spheres of influence.”
Another question is whether Russia can fulfill. China has shipped millions of doses to other countries, but Sputnik V’s output so far appears to be far lower than demand.
“They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams of making this vaccine a viable, marketable product,” said Judy Twig, a professor of political science specializing in global health at the University of the British Community in Virginia. these explicit and implicit promises to people in and outside Russia about access to this product, which is now unexpectedly great. And now they are mired in attempts, confusion, attempts to figure out how to fulfill all those promises. “
Russia must also take care of its own. Authorities have announced plans to vaccinate 60% of adults, or about 68 million people, by the end of June.
Domestic spread in Russia is slow compared to other countries, with about 4 million people, or less than 3% of the population, vaccinated by the end of February. Part of this may be due to the widespread reluctance among Russians to trust vaccines.
Russia’s direct investment fund, which finances and markets the vaccine abroad, has not responded to a request for comment on how many doses go to other countries. Earlier, she said she had received requests for 2.4 billion doses from more than 50 countries.
Airfinity, a London-based research firm, estimates that Russia has agreed to ship about 392 million doses abroad and is in talks with countries for at least another 356 million.
Judging by production and exports so far, “Russia is far from being able to achieve this,” said Rasmus Hansen, CEO and founder of Airfinity.
Russia produced just over 2 million doses last year amid reports of local manufacturers having trouble purchasing equipment and producing the second component of the double vaccine.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on February 20 that more than 10 million doses of Sputnik V had been produced.
Sputnik V is a viral vector vaccine that uses a harmless virus that carries genetic material to stimulate the immune system. Its production is a complex process, said Elena Subbotina, a consultant to the CBPartners’ Team pharmaceutical consultant for Central and Eastern Europe. Manufacturers cannot guarantee stable production, as working with organic ingredients involves many variations in the quality of the final product.
Some countries to which large batches of Sputnik V have been offered have not yet approved it for use.
In India, which has been promised 125 million doses, the vaccine is being studied to determine whether it produces a comparable immune response. The Brazilian Ministry of Health said it was negotiating the purchase of 10 million doses, but the country’s regulatory agency has not yet authorized its 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.
By March 1, Argentina had received nearly 2.5 million doses, although at one point the government expected 5 million in January and more than 14 million more in February. Officials in Hungary, who agreed to buy 2 million doses in three months, said on January 22nd that they expected 600,000 doses in the first 30 days, but received only 325,600 by early March. Mexico signed a contract for 24 million doses and hoped to receive 400,000 in February, but received only 200,000.
Russia’s direct investment fund has agreements with manufacturers in countries, including Brazil, South Korea and India to increase production, but there are few indications that manufacturers abroad have made large quantities of the vaccine so far.
The Brazilian company Uniao Quimica is in a pilot phase of testing, the results of which will be shared with Russia before the company can produce it for sale. Indian drugmaker Hetero Biopharma, in order to make 100 million doses, had to start production in early 2021, but it is unclear whether it has actually begun.
South Korean company GL Rapha, which expects to make 150 million doses this year, will produce finished products by sometime in March, company spokesman Kim Gi-Young said.
Russia has so far not been criticized for delaying Sputnik V’s deliveries to other countries, with foreign officials optimistic about the deals.
Hungary is still expecting large shipments, but has expressed optimism about receiving them.
“The Russian side, with a minimum delay, will fulfill the 600,000 doses agreed in the first phase, and then the additional 1.4 million doses,” Hungarian Secretary of State Tamas Mencher said last month. Prime Minister Victor Orban added on Friday: “The Russians are almost keeping their promises.”
Promising more than can be delivered seems to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and this is a real risk for Russia as well, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Center for Russian European Asian Studies.
“They won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” she said. “But the problem is how will they administer it?”
Associated Press Writers Aniruda Gosal in New Delhi, India; David Biller in Rio de Janeiro; Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Justin Spike and Bella Sandelski in Budapest, Hungary; and Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed.
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