President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last August that Russia had cleared the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine for use before it even completed safety trials sparked scepticism worldwide.
Now he may reap diplomatic dividends as Russia basks in arguably its biggest scientific breakthrough since the Soviet era.
Countries are lining up for supplies of Sputnik V after peer-reviewed results published in The Lancet medical journal this week showed the Russian vaccine protects against the deadly virus about as well as the United States and European shots, and far more effectively than Chinese rivals.
At least 19 countries have approved the inoculation for use, including European Union member state Hungary, while key markets such as Brazil and India are close to authorising it.
Now Russia is setting its sights on the prized EU market as the bloc struggles with its vaccination programme amid supply shortages.
In the global battle to defeat a pandemic that has claimed 2.3 million lives in little more than a year, the race to obtain vaccines has assumed geopolitical significance as governments seek to emerge from the huge social and economic damage caused by lockdowns imposed to limit the spread of the virus. That has given Russia an edge as one of a handful of countries where scientists have produced an effective defence.
Its decision to name Sputnik V after the world’s first satellite whose 1957 launch gave the Soviet Union a stunning triumph against the US to start the space race only underlined the scale of the significance Moscow attached to the achievement.
Results from the late-stage trials of 20,000 participants reviewed in The Lancet showed that the vaccine has a 91.6 per cent success rate.
“This is a watershed moment for us,” Mr Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, which backed Sputnik V’s development and is in charge of its international roll-out, said in an interview.
While it is too early to gauge the political gains for Putin, Russia is already making much of the soft-power impact of the vaccine on its image after years of international condemnation over election meddling and targeting of political opponents at home and abroad. State television reports extensively on deliveries to other nations.
Sputnik’s success will not change hostility towards Mr Putin among Western governments, though it could strengthen Russia’s geopolitical clout in regions such as Latin America, according to Ms Oksana Antonenko, a director at Control Risks consultancy.
“With this vaccine, it’s proven itself capable of producing something new that’s in demand around the world,” she said. Production constraints are the biggest challenge facing all manufacturers as global demand far outpaces supply.
Russia, pledging free shots for its 146 million population, began output last year and the vaccine is currently being manufactured in countries including India, South Korea and Brazil.
This week, it emerged a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement to produce Sputnik V in Turkey, even as the nation has deals to buy 50 million doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac vaccine and 4.5 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech shot.
Despite Russia’s success, domestic demand remains lukewarm so far, driven by public suspicion of the authorities.
Mr Putin, 68, fuelled the scepticism last December when he said he was waiting to get the inoculation until it had been cleared for people his age. He still has not said whether he has been vaccinated, but other nations are not waiting to find out.
The day after announcing he had contracted Covid-19, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Jan 25 said he had thanked a “genuinely affectionate” Mr Putin for pledging 24 million doses of Sputnik V in the coming two months.
Three days later, Bolivian President Luis Arce personally took delivery of a batch at La Paz airport.
Latin America is proving fertile territory. Argentina, which has struggled to obtain vaccine supplies, started its mass inoculation programme after taking delivery of more than half a million Sputnik V doses by January. It has been joined by Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela.
In Brazil, the region’s biggest market, a decision announced Feb 3 to scrap the requirement for phase three trials for emergency use may speed up approval.
Guinea became the first African nation to start dispensing Sputnik V in December with Moscow-friendly President Alpha Conde and several ministers taking the vaccine. It expects to get 1.6 million doses this year and is also in talks on acquiring Chinese vaccines, along with AstraZeneca’s shot.
Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast are among other potential customers for Russia.
“We’re not in a position where we can say no to any vaccine. We’ve opted for the Pfizer vaccine, but we’re looking at other vaccines as well,” said Professor Joseph Benie, head of the National Institute of Public Hygiene in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “There’s an urgency now to start inoculating.”