In August 2020, while Europe was
on the cusp of a devastating second wave of Covid-19,
and the U.S. was struggling to find beds
for its sickest patients with the virus,
this was happening in Russia.
But the rest of the world wasn't so sure.
Russia has become the first country to
give regulatory approval to a Covid-19 vaccine.
But there are myriad questions
and concerns already. A vaccine so quickly
and from a country notorious for propaganda and deception.
The issue is not about the science of the vaccine.
It's about the approach that was used
by the Russian government, in terms of approving
and starting to use the vaccine before the phase three
clinical trial data was in.
Starting to use the vaccine,
starting to try to export the vaccine
and launching this entire propaganda campaign
actually worked against the product.
After first facing scrutiny
on whether Russia's vaccines actually work,
now the question has become
whether they can meet worldwide demand.
Critics and observers
are now left wondering is the Kremlin playing vaccine
politics as part of a campaign to undercut Western powers
and their technology?
Or is this a case of solid science being tainted
by allegations of Russian hacking, poisonings
and interference in democratic elections.
to bring Covid-19 under control.
Russia is battling a surge in Covid cases.
The virus came late to Russia,
but it is definitely here now.
Russia reported its first Covid-19 cases
in January in Siberia and Russia's far East.
By July, officials reported almost 840,000 cases.
And more than 30,000 excessive deaths.
Global health experts however,
have questioned the accuracy of Russia's data,
deeming the number of Covid related fatalities
too low given infection rates.
Russia acted very swiftly to impose restrictions.
It was one of the first countries to enact a total ban
on the entry of Chinese citizens.
And by late March, it had imposed a shutdown of its borders
and a series of lockdowns across the country.
Meanwhile, in Moscow,
the Gamaleya Research Institute
of Epidemiology and Microbiology named
after pioneering Russian vaccine researcher
Nikolay Gamaleya got to work.
They called the project Sputnik V.
Sputnik V is a reference to a very important date
in Soviet history, which was the launch
of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957
and that marked the start of the Space Race
between the Soviet Union and the United States.
In naming it after that, it's clear
that Russia was positioning itself as a player in a
The first artificial Earth satellite,
a world-stirring event.
By May, the Gamaleya Institute had already
started testing their vaccine on the center's director
as well as key scientific staff.
A move which seemed to place Russia ahead
of other countries in the vaccine race.
The institute supplied vaccines
for use against the Ebola outbreak
in Guinea in 2017 to 2018.
The Covid-19 vaccine
that they developed was based on technology
they had earlier applied in an experimental inoculation
against the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome
And that's what allowed Russia to go ahead
relatively quickly in developing a Covid-19 vaccine.
But on August 11th,
when President Putin announced
that Sputnik had been registered
as the world's first Covid-19 vaccine,
it hadn't started vital phase three trials,
prompting worry among the scientific community
and mockery from the Trump administration.
I was extraordinarily surprised
to see that announcement in August.
I'm not surprised that they were working on it,
not surprised they started the clinical trials,
but very surprised and a little bit disturbed
to see them starting to use it before they had the data.
For Putin it was clearly very important
to be first in the world
to release and approve a vaccine.
And so the entire state propaganda apparatus
to present this as a huge victory for Russian science,
for the Russian pharma industry and basically as proof
of Russia's superiority in areas where the country
has long been written off.
Isn't it premature for Russia to
have approved this vaccine before phase three trials
are substantially underway?
No, not at all.
First we were criticized but then we saw that
Britain announced that they may follow suit.
U.S. FDA said that they may want
to register before phase three.
The suspicion that this is a propaganda tool rather
than actually a way to fight Covid-19 was obviously there
and it was expectable that reaction.
The Putin government has done a lot of ugly things
to earn the suspicion and distrust of especially
So obviously there was a certain handicap to overcome
and that could not be done with premature fanfare.
It could only be counteracted with scientific proof
and scientific proof was eventually delivered.
On February 2nd,
in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet,
vaccine experts, professors, Polly Roy and Ian Jones
reported that Sputnik V appeared safe
with an efficacy rate of 91.6%.
This was really a chance for Russia to dispel a lot
of the skepticism surrounding the vaccine and you know
whether it was actually good at combating Covid-19.
I think it's fair to say that demand increased as a result
of that breakthrough.
In Europe, there has definitely been a change of sentiment.
There are shortages of the vaccine in Europe.
So, you know, now the EU is looking at a request to
approve the use of Sputnik V.
In addition to that several European countries, France
Germany, Spain and Italy may also manufacture it.
So it's definitely fair to say
that there was a change of heart.
Sputnik is very similar to both the AstraZeneca vaccine
and the Johnson and Johnson vaccine in that it's
an adenovirus vectored vaccine.
And what that means is that they're using a common cold
virus to deliver a little bit
of the Covid virus
to your own cells and sort of tricks your cells
into making just a little bit of the Covid virus.
And with that little bit, which is the spike protein
your body's able to mount an immune response
so you develop T-cells, you develop antibodies
that all respond to Covid-19
if you should get infected in the future.
Sputnik V is also double vectored, which means
that it uses a slightly different version
of the vaccine in the second dose.
So protection against Covid-19 could last longer.
I don't necessarily think that in terms
of the vaccine itself and how it works in the body
it exhibits any advantages over the mRNA system.
Now vaccines like Sputnik, like AstraZeneca
and like the Johnson and Johnson vaccine
that are all adenovirus vector vaccines
are much more stable in warmer temperatures.
And so that makes this cold-chain much easier.
That means the storage and the distribution is much easier.
And so all of that is a real positive strength.
The AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson shots
have in rare cases, been connected to blood clots.
Russian officials claim that Sputnik though developed
in the same way hasn't caused similar side effects.
All of this combined
with a relatively low production cost of $10 a dose,
makes Sputnik V a viable option
for developing countries that are struggling
to either obtain or distribute inoculations.
But there are questions about how much politics
will impact the vaccine's distribution.
We do not do politics.
And obviously vaccine is our effort to save people
and it should not be politicized.
Russia clearly has been using the vaccine,
Sputnik V, as a way to bolster its global ambitions.
In Latin America for example,
Argentina has already had deliveries
of two and a half million doses.
It's ordered a total of 20 million.
Mexico is another big buyer they've asked
for 24 million doses.
Russia hasn't asked any countries to pay a premium.
However, it's not offering any discounts
for poorer countries.
So in Latin America or Africa
the price is the same as anywhere else
and that's approximately $10 a shot.
and we know that some Western manufacturers
are providing discounts for developing countries.
However, Russia's pharma industry,
wasn't prepared for the level of demand for Sputnik V.
The RDIF, Russia's sovereign wealth fund, who
were financing the vaccine had to strike production deals
around the world to support the global supply
for Sputnik V abroad.
There are definitely still problems in ramping
Russia's total production of Sputnik V
since the pandemic started is less than the number
of vaccine shots administered every two weeks
to the U.S. population.
It is now promising
to produce much larger quantities.
Particularly in India it has a very ambitious target
of 700 million two dose sets,
which it is hoping to get manufactured
outside Russia this year.
Closer to home,
there's been a lack of enthusiasm for the vaccine.
With a recent poll revealing that 62%
of respondents wouldn't take Sputnik V.
Despite ordering mass inoculations in January,
Putin himself didn't get vaccinated until seven months
after the August announcement.
The Kremlin said he was focusing on other inoculations.
It was not made public
which of the Russian vaccines he received.
In a way that the traditional Russian mistrust
of authority has made it easier
for the government
because the demand for the vaccine is not as high
as it would have been elsewhere.
In Russia, you can get it if you want it,
but many just don't want to
and perhaps even Putin's own slowness
in getting vaccinated is indicative of, you know,
how cautious Russians are about this whole thing.
Russia has been hit especially hard
by the pandemic with at least 250,000 epidemic-linked deaths
Russian officials said.
But the country could now
hold a powerful weapon in the fight against the virus.
I think the Sputnik vaccine will be a very powerful tool.
I think we still have a few questions
that need to be answered.
I still think we want to see the final data
at the end of May when the phase three trial is due to end
and all of the safety data.
So yes, a few small bits of data that I would like to see
but I think the Sputnik vaccine will absolutely
be a very powerful tool in the global vaccine campaign
as well as many other vaccines that are both being
developed right now, or being used in other countries.
We just need to combine that sort of manufacturing
and distribution with that solid clinical evaluation.
And I think that we are doing that.
It's made a huge difference to Russia's image.
Definitely a very good tool of soft diplomacy,
which has shown that Russia has the capacity to play
an important role in combating this pandemic.