Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has yet to win EU regulatory approval and is likely to play little part in the bloc’s vaccination rollout, but it has achieved what some observers have said is one of its objectives — sowing division among, and within, member states.
“Sputnik V has become a tool of soft power for Russia,” said Michal Baranowski, a fellow with US think tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s planted its flag on the vaccine and the political goal of its strategy is to divide the West.”
Sputnik V’s makers have said that the shot has been approved in 61 countries and exported to 40, but safety concerns linger. Many EU leaders are skeptical of Russia’s intentions when it has administered fewer than 19 million doses to its population of 144 million.
Amid growing European concern over repeated Russian cyberattacks against the West, the Kremlin’s treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and escalating tensions on the Ukraine border, EU observers have said that Moscow is deploying Sputnik V as another weapon of geopolitical influence.
“Russia’s low vaccination rate just doesn’t tally with it having a supposedly cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine,” one EU diplomat said. “Either Moscow’s being altruistic, which seems unlikely, or it is prioritizing geopolitics over Russians’ needs.”
So far, only two EU member states, Hungary and Slovakia, have broken with the bloc’s collective approach by ordering the shot, and only Hungary has used it — although Bulgaria is about to open talks, Austria has said it is ready to buy 1 million doses and Germany is negotiating for 30 million.
Others are decidedly less enthusiastic, even frankly hostile, with French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian describing it as “more a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy than of solidarity and assistance.”
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte wrote on Twitter in February that Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed the shot not so much as a “cure for the Russian people” as “another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”
After a lamentably slow early rollout that has only recently started to pick up speed, the European Commission said that Sputnik V was unlikely to play a part in the EU’s rollout simply because it would not be available in sufficient quantities until the end of this year, when most Europeans are to already be vaccinated.
EU Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton, who is in charge of vaccine procurement, has said that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is evaluating Sputnik V, but “still lacks essential data,” while factories in Italy, Spain and Germany that have been named as putative manufacturing sites would take months to come on stream.
Hitting back via its official Sputnik V Twitter account, Russia has denied that the vaccine is a political tool, or that safety or production capacity are potential issues.
“Politicization of vaccines is unethical and costing lives,” read a typical recent post on Twitter, while another said: “Sputnik V is undoubtedly one of the best vaccines in the world.”
The account has accused EU officials of “bias” and “fake storytelling,” and sought to play down the safety concerns that have plagued other viral vector vaccines, such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
“Biased Western media cannot forever ignore real data from the real world that shows Sputnik V is safer and more efficient than mRNA vaccines,” the account said, accusing Breton of continually “misleading the public” over production capacity.
An EU study released last week accused Russian and Chinese media of systematically seeking to sow mistrust in Western vaccines by sensationalizing safety concerns, making unfounded links between shots and deaths in Europe, and promoting Russian and Chinese vaccines as superior.
However, whether or not the EMA approves Sputnik V, and whether or not it ever arrives in sufficient numbers, observers have said that it has done significant damage, with EU national and regional leaders leveraging it for their own political ends.
In some countries, it has caused mayhem: Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic was forced to resign this month amid a bitter dispute over a secret deal to buy 2 million doses, despite the disagreement of many in his four-party coalition.
Making matters worse, the Slovak medicines agency subsequently said that the first 200,000 doses were different from the vaccine in the Lancet study and refused to approve them, prompting Matovi to say that Slovakia would instead use a Hungarian lab.
Sputnik V has also cost the jobs of former Czech minister of health Jan Blatny and former Czech minister of foreign affairs Tomas Petricek, who both opposed the vaccine’s deployment without EMA approval, but who were fired by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis following remarks by Czech President Milos Zeman, a Russian ally.
Only in the wake of a furious diplomatic row two weeks ago over Czech allegations that Russia was behind a deadly 2014 blast at an ammunitions warehouse did Prague announce that it would no longer be seeking to purchase any of the vaccine.
Elsewhere in post-communist Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has long fostered close relations with Russia, has bypassed the bloc’s joint procurement program and EMA authorization to buy 2 million doses, while outside the EU, Serbia has become a champion vaccinator thanks to Sputnik V.
In western Europe, regional politicians have also sought to score points against national governments through Sputnik V deals: the conservative leader of Madrid in Socialist-led Spain; the far-right president of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region in France; and the opposition Democratic Party leader of Italy’s Campania region.
In Germany, where federal elections in September have turned the country’s early shortage of vaccines into a particularly burning issue nationwide, with politicians of all colors under heavy pressure to find solutions, three states including Bavaria have either struck or are negotiating Sputnik V deals.
German Minister of Health Jens Spahn has said that Berlin is in talks on a national deal, but stressed that any rollout would depend on EMA approval and Sputnik V supplies would need to arrive within the next couple of months.
For Baranowski, Sputnik V’s rushed approval, online propaganda and carefully selected destinations add up to a Russian strategy that is “neither innocent nor humanitarian. It is part of exactly the same game, of dividing the West — which we see in Moscow’s use of military power, cybersecurity and energy security.”
Russia’s scheme is working, he added.
“It’s dividing various European actors pretty well,” Baranowski said. “Until Sputnik V has EMA approval — at which stage, of course, there’s no problem: the world needs vaccines — it’s become a political litmus test for whether you are for or against the EU’s program. That’s eroding confidence — and that’s what Putin wants.”
Early Western doubts about Sputnik V’s efficacy after Russia approved it in August last year — without the results of full clinical trials — were partially dispelled by a peer-reviewed late-stage trial published in the Lancet in February, which showed that it was nearly 92 percent effective.
Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute laboratory and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund backing the vaccine, have since said that scientists had found Sputnik V 97.6 percent effective in “real world” data from 3.8 million people.
The EMA’s approval process, which began late because of a lack of manufacturer data, was “really at a very early stage,” director Emer Cooke said, adding that the agency had yet to start reviewing any “real world” safety records — for example, on potential side effects of the vaccine.
Among other things, the agency is looking into whether clinical trials met so-called “good clinical practice” standards after some soldiers and state employees that Russia said took part in them reportedly claimed that they had been pressured into participating.
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