MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s boast in August that it was the first country to adopt a coronavirus vaccine once led to skepticism over its inadequate testing. Six months later, as demand for the Sputnik V vaccine grows, experts are again asking questions, this time about whether Moscow can hold back all orders from any country.
Slovakia received 200,000 doses on March 1, although the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began reviewing its use in an accelerated process on Thursday. The President of the Czech Republic said that he had written a letter directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to receive supplies. Millions of doses are expected from Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East under a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.
“Sputnik V continues to confidently conquer Europe,” said Olga Skabeeva, host of Russia-1 state TV channel.
Dmitry Kisel, the network’s main Kremlin anchor, accumulated hyperbole last month – blustering. “The Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, is the best in the world.”
State-run television channels have widely covered the export of vaccines, citing foreign praise for Russia and headlines about the difficulties countries face with Western vaccines.
Early criticism of Sputnik V was mitigated by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, which states that large-scale trials have shown that it is safe, with 91% effectiveness against the virus.
It could help transform Russia’s image as one of the world’s leading scientific, technological and philanthropic powers, especially as other countries face shortages of COVID-19 vaccines as richer countries seek Western production options or manufacturers struggle with limited production capacity.
“The fact that Russia is among the five countries that have been able to develop a rapid vaccine allows Moscow to present itself as a high-tech knowledge rather than a declining gas station,” said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign analyst.
Some experts say promoting vaccines from China and Russia, which have not been as common as those from the West, may offer a faster way to increase global supply. Others say Russia wants to score geopolitical points.
“Putin is using the (vaccine) to promote a badly tarnished picture of Russia’s scientific and technological skills,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Law Orchtown University and director of the World Health Organization’s National Center for Global Health Cooperation. “He uses it for geostrategic purposes in areas where Russia would like to have spheres of influence.”
Can Russia send another question? China has shipped millions to other countries, but Sputnik V production is currently much lower than demand.
“They have succeeded in one of their wildest dreams in that this vaccine is actually a viable, marketable product,” said Judy Twig, a professor of political science majoring in global health at the University of Virginia Partnership. “They have made all these obvious and indirect promises about the availability of this product to people inside and outside Russia, which is now unexpectedly large. And now they are stuck in a mess, trying to figure out how to deliver on all those promises. ”
Russia must also take care of itself. Authorities say they plan to vaccinate 60 percent of adults, or about 68 million people, by the end of June.
In Russia, the spread is slower than in other nations, with around 4 million people or less than 3% of the population being vaccinated in late February. Some of this may be due to the widespread reluctance of Russians to trust vaccines.
The Russian direct investment fund, which banked the vaccine and sold it abroad, did not respond to a request for comment on how many doses it buys in other countries. It said earlier that it had received 2.4 billion quota inquiries from more than 50 countries.
The London-based research firm Airfinity estimates that Russia has agreed to supply about 392 million shares abroad, and talks are under way with the countries for at least 356 million.
Judging by production and exports so far, “Russia is far from achieving that,” said Rasmus Hansen, CEO and founder of Airfinity.
Russia produced more than 2 million doses last year, with local manufacturers reportedly having trouble buying equipment and making a second component of a two-shot 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 virus vector vaccine that uses a harmless virus that contains genetic material to stimulate the immune system. Producing it is a difficult process, says Elena Subbotina, a pharmaceutical consultant for CBPartners’ Central Eastern Europe team. Manufacturers can not guarantee sustainable products, as working with biological components involves great variability in the quality of the finished product.
Some countries that have been offered a large batch of Sputnik V have yet to approve its use.
In India, which has pledged 125 million doses, the vaccine is being tested to see if it produces a comparable immune response. Brazil’s health ministry says it is in talks to buy 10 million doses, but the country’s regulatory agency has yet to allow its use. Nepal, which was offered 25 million doses, also did not confirm.
Other countries have delayed the acceptance of Sputnik V cargo.
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. Hungarian officials, who agreed to buy 2 million doses in three months, said they expected 600,000 doses in the first 30 days on January 22, but received only 325,600 doses in early March. Mexico made a deal for 24 million doses, hoping to get 400,000 in February, but only got 200,000.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund has contracts with producers to promote producers in countries including Brazil, South Korea, and India, but so far foreign producers have produced large quantities of the vaccine, with few indications.
Brazilian company Uniao Quimica is in a pilot phase, the results of which will be shared with Russia before the company can produce it for sale. Indian pharmacist Hetero Biopharma, with a deal to make 100 million doses, was supposed to start production in early 2021, but it is not clear whether it has really started.
South Korean company GL Rapha, which expects to produce 150 million doses this year, will be ready by March, says company spokesman Kim Ki-yang.
Russia has not yet been criticized for delaying Sputnik V deliveries to other countries, with foreign officials optimistic about the deal.
Hungary is still waiting for large shipments, but expressed optimism about receiving them.
“The Russian side, with minimal delay, will meet the 600,000 doses agreed in the first phase, and then the additional 1.4 million doses,” said Hungarian Secretary of State Tamas Menzer last month. Prime Minister Victor Orban added on Friday. “The Russians are almost keeping their promises.”
Promising more than you can deliver is a common problem with coronavirus vaccines, “it’s a real risk to Russia,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for European-Asian Studies in Brussels.
“They won a lot of gold medals for creating this very effective vaccine,” he said. “But the problem is how they are going to do it.”
Associated Press writers Anirudda os Osal in New Delhi, India; David Biller in Rio de Janeiro; Almudena Calatravan in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Just Astin Spike և Bela Sandelski in Budapest, Hungary; Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea.
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