When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had developed an effective coronavirus vaccine in August of last year, the response from many Western nations was skeptical at best, and quite often outright dismissive. This initially seemed to be the logical perspective, given that the Russian’s vaccine was the first to be released, despite not yet completing the phase 3 trials that would have assured the vaccine’s efficacy and identified potential side effects. Many scientists in the West doubted the vaccine’s safety and even its effectiveness, attributing its early release as Putin’s gamble to assert the Russian Federation’s continued scientific relevance. The Russian vaccine’s very name, Sputnik V, references the first ever satellite, a monumental Soviet era scientific achievement that was temporarily unrivaled by the USA.
It seems that this gamble has paid off, and much to the surprise of many commentators in the West, the Russian vaccine is verified to be highly effective in protecting against the coronavirus. The well-respected Lancet medical journal’s peer review of Russia’s vaccine trials confirmed that the Sputnik V vaccine has an efficacy of 91.6%, making it one of the top vaccines in the world. This is arguably one of, if not the largest scientific breakthroughs for Russia since the Soviet era. Assuming the information provided to the Lancet is accurate, this ranks the Sputnik V vaccine as one of the most effective in the world, even more so than some Western produced vaccines such as the Johnson and Johnson one-jab vaccine and potentially the UK’s Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine. This monumental feat proves that Russia’s continued scientific relevance should not be underestimated by the international community, despite the country’s deep economic inequities and rampant corruption problems.
While any addition in the global fight against coronavirus is certainly welcome to the international community, the global distribution of vaccines has become a highly politicized issue, often highlighting the medical repercussions of economic inequality within the global system. Western produced vaccines have significantly long queues for access, with countries such as the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, and European Union states having already reserved large portions of vaccine per capita from providers such as Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. As highly developed nations have been able to gain priority for Western produced vaccines in the race against coronavirus, developing nations who lack the capital to compete will logically turn to alternate vaccines, such as the Sputnik V, or China’s Sinopharm vaccine. The severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the US leads to the assumption globally that the country will understandably be unlikely to share the vaccine in the short term before addressing its own COVID-19 crisis, which has seen the highest verified case count in the entire world. The Russian vaccine also enjoys logistical advantages, as it can be stored in a standard refrigerator rather than the powerful freezers that are required for the Pfizer vaccine, making it much easier to distribute in countries with poor electrical infrastructure and/or hot climates. It is also much cheaper than some Western alternatives such as Moderna and Pfizer, costing just $20 dollars for a two-shot vaccination.
It is almost certain that this vaccine will help to increase Russia’s soft power, especially in its former Soviet periphery regions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where it typically has enjoyed some degree of regional hegemony. Although Russia’s continued influence in former Soviet states is unsurprising, Latin America’s acceptance of the Russian vaccine could see Russia gain considerable political clout in the region. The president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, thanked a “genuinely affectionate” Putin for pledging to provide 24 million doses of the vaccine, and Bolivian president Luis Arce personally accepted a shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine. This will perhaps foment increased cooperation between South and Central America and Russia, a region in which the US’s overtly interventionalist foreign policy has historically been dominant. However, the Sputnik V vaccine is also garnering interest from developed nations outside of the global south. The United Arab Emirates, typically a close US ally, also has recently approved Sputnik V to add to its vaccine repertoire. There are also some indications European states outside of Russia’s typical sphere of influence are interested in its vaccine, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that “every vaccine is welcome in the European Union”, and the UK is pursuing a vaccine trial using a combination of the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Sputnik V. However, it is important to note that there still remains significant skepticism towards the Russian vaccine in Europe, as EU Commission President Ursula von der Lyn has expressed confusion on why Russia is focusing on exporting its vaccine rather than fully inoculating its own population.
The Sputnik V vaccine has also been a godsend for internationally isolated countries such as Iran, whose access to Western medicine is complicated by sanctions and banking restrictions that have made importing even basic medical supplies difficult. Sputnik V vaccines have also been some of the first to arrive in the Gaza Strip, being donated both directly by Russia and indirectly from the UAE. These vaccines, although few in number, are some of the first for the blockaded Palestinians in Gaza, who have been excluded from Israel’s record-breaking vaccination program.
It is clear that Sputnik V provides not only an essential boost for the world’s campaign against coronavirus but allows Russia a new chance to gain soft power and goodwill globally. The vaccine provides an invaluable resource to developing nations, who lack priority in acquiring American and British vaccines, despite hosting many of these same vaccine’s trials, leading to accusations of medical imperialism. It is certainly irresponsible to regard the Russian vaccine as a negative, as it will likely save millions of lives throughout the world. However, it is clear Putin is positioning himself as the beneficiary of this breakthrough, although the true praise belongs to the Russian researchers and immunologists who designed the vaccine. Depending on the length of the coronavirus pandemic in the developing world, Western countries may struggle to gain as widespread support for non-COVID-19 related critiques of Russia, such as its suppression of antigovernment protests. If countries are dependent upon Russia to inoculate their populations, they might think twice before supporting diplomatic critiques of Putin, who will certainly be eager to reap the diplomatic dividends of being a vaccine provider to the developing and developed world. It is clear that one cannot underestimate the continued relevance of Russia’s scientific prowess, and that the West should consider being as generous as possible with their surplus vaccinations. After all, this disease has shown no respect for arbitrary political borders.