The Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies continued its NYC Russia Public Policy seminar series Monday with a discussion centered on Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and its implications for the geopolitics of COVID-19. Dr. Alexander Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute and Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard, moderated the event along with NYU’s Dr. Joshua Tucker.

As the race to inoculate the world against COVID-19 continues, it becomes ever more important to examine how countries outside NATO’s sphere of influence are keeping up. Russia in particular has taken the COVID crisis as an opportunity to reassert itself as a global scientific and diplomatic power, with Sputnik V (V as in Victory, not the Roman numeral) as its chief contribution to the battle against the virus. 

Joining Drs. Cooley and Tucker as panelists were Dr. Judyth Twigg, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University; Josh Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for the New Yorker; Dr. Enrico Bucci, a biology professor at Temple and Director of the System Biology program of the Sbarro Health Research Organization; and Alexandra Yatsyk, a fellow at the Free Russia Foundation. 

Dr. Twigg spoke first, providing context for the development and deployment of Sputnik V. With an impromptu announcement from President Putin in August of last year, Sputnik V instantly captured headlines as the first COVID-19 vaccine to be authorized by a national regulatory agency for emergency use, even before Phase III trials had gotten underway. Developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Institute, the two-dose adenovirus vector vaccine has been vociferously promoted by Russian state media and is registered in 46 countries. Twigg posited that Russia has three main goals in developing and promoting Sputnik V. First, it is a way for Russia to regain lost scientific prowess, hearkening back to the original Sputnik. Additionally, Russia desires to exercise soft power through its generosity. Western countries have purchased almost all the Pfizer and Moderna doses and left none for the rest of the world while Russia is distinguishing itself by offering Sputnik V to many developing countries (although only 18 countries are currently distributing Sputnik V to date). Finally, Sputnik V represents a lucrative business opportunity for Russia. Russia has historically not been a prominent player in the global pharmaceutical market, so this is its opportunity to gain a seat at the table. 

Mr. Yaffa then took the fore to speak about how Russians themselves have reacted to Sputnik V. Despite the relentless government propaganda, only 30% of Russians plan to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and so far, only 3.5% of Russians have been vaccinated. Yaffa partially attributes this to the fact that many Russians believe the pandemic is over and see no need to get vaccinated. Yaffa himself was in Russia for much of last year and got the chance to speak with some of the scientists who developed Sputnik V. He reports that the science behind the vaccine is sound, but the Russian government was premature in its approval. In his opinion, this helped shatter Russians’ trust in Sputnik V. Yaffa also noted a stark discrepancy between sky-high approval ratings of President Putin and Russians’ reluctance to take a vaccine he vehemently endorses, pointing out that Putin himself has not yet received the vaccine.  

Dr. Bucci then elaborated on the faulty relationship between the science and Russian media portrayal of the vaccine. Russia claims that the vaccine is 91% effective, but Bucci says this number was procured from data elicited under very specific conditions and with unclear sourcing. He characterized Russia’s public relations campaign as having “contaminated” the science in its prematurity. To boot, observations in Argentina, which has deployed Sputnik V to a large slice of its population, show that antibody levels in those who received the vaccine and had not been infected with COVID-19 at any prior time were eight times less than the number of antibodies put forth in Sputnik V’s official paper in The Lancet. He believes the real efficacy of Sputnik V is similar to the estimated 70% efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which also uses adenovirus vector technology. 

Finally, Ms. Yatsyk spoke about Russia’s intelligence campaign to discredit other vaccines in favor of its own. She shared that social media posts allegedly originating from Russian intelligence have falsely claimed that dozens of people have died from adverse effects caused by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Other posts claim, ironically, that the EU pressured its regulators to approve Pfizer and Moderna prematurely. Yatsyk believes that Russian intelligence remains robust, as evidenced by opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s poisoning last year. 

Despite the dubious politics of Sputnik V, all speakers concurred that it is a highly effective and valuable vaccine and that the primary concern is Sputnik V’s premature approval, not the science itself. Sputnik V is also innovative in its use of two adenoviruses instead of one in order to guard against vector immunity. It is, on balance, a triumph of science, and, in Dr. Twigg’s words, “The world needs as many good vaccines as we can get.”

vaccine vials via Pixabay