Moscow’s South-South vaccine efforts have fallen short of expectations and don’t pose as big a challenge to the West as initially presumed.

On August 11, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) commemorated the first anniversary of its unveiling of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. Russia’s Health Ministry boasted that Sputnik V works against all strains of Covid-19 and has 83 percent effectiveness against the highly contagious Delta variant. The RDIF also claimed that the gap between the first and second shots of Sputnik V can be extended up to 180 days without loss of efficiency. 

Despite the fanfare surrounding Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and positive news about its efficacy, Moscow’s vaccine distribution campaign at home and abroad is in crisis. 

The Delta variant has catapulted Russia’s death toll to record levels, as daily fatalities pass 800 and infections exceed 20,000. Yet vaccine hesitancy is rampant, as 55 percent of Russians surveyed earlier this month by the Levada Center do not plan on getting inoculated. 

Even more alarmingly, the pace of vaccinations slid by 60 percent in recent weeks, despite stringent new vaccine mandates and public pro-vaccine exhortations from President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s vaccine distributions to the Global South have been marred by delivery delays and controversies about their excessive costs. In March 2021, Russia pledged to ship 700 million vaccine doses around the world, but RDIF chairman Kirill Dmitriev has recently shied away from reaffirming this commitment. 

Thus far, vaccine deliveries have fallen well short of expectations. Sub-Saharan Africa is a key target market for Russia’s Covid-19 vaccines and in February, Russia offered the African Union 300 million Sputnik V doses. Ghana has received just 20,000 doses out of an expected 3.4 million, while Angola has secured just 40,000 doses out of a requested 12 million. 

These delivery delays extend to close Russian partners, which depend on Sputnik V. For example, Iran ordered 60 million Sputnik V doses but by early August, it had received just 2 million. 

The negative fall-out of these delayed deliveries has been compounded by controversies about Sputnik V’s cost. Sputnik V’s cost in African Union countries is $9.75/dose, which is significantly higher than $3/dose for AstraZeneca and $6.75/dose for Pfizer. 

Sputnik V has also been used in high-cost private vaccine resale schemes. In April, Kenya halted the private sale of Sputnik V, as it was being sold for $70/dose in Nairobi. Dalmook al Maktoum, a Dubai royal who was awarded exclusive rights to distribute Sputnik V, charged $19/dose to Ghana, $22.50/dose to Pakistan and $24/dose to Guyana. 

Russia has tried to reduce the cost of Sputnik V vaccines by encouraging the development of local production facilities. However, Russia’s local production targets chronically overestimate the technological capacity of countries in the Global South. Russia’s reluctance to be fully transparent about the medical technology behind Sputnik V with target countries has exacerbated this problem, but a number of studies have been published regarding the trials and results of the vaccine.

The failure of Moscow’s vaccine diplomacy efforts and Russia’s poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has far-reaching implications. Russia is concerned about the wave of Sputnik V vaccine contract cancellations in Latin America. 

Guatemala cancelled an order of 8 million Sputnik V vaccines, and is currently locked in a reimbursement battle with Russia. Meanwhile, RDIF has claimed that the contract is being renegotiated.  Brazil recently cancelled a contract for 10 million Sputnik V doses. Argentina’s Health Minister Carla Vizzotti travelled to Moscow on August 17 to discuss vaccine supplies amidst growing speculation that Buenos Aires will cancel its Sputnik V orders. 

While Russia can point to more successful vaccine distribution efforts in Vietnam and Egypt, these public cancellations could further undermine the credibility of Russia’s vaccine delivery efforts. 

Russia’s vaccine diplomacy travails could also undermine Vladimir Putin’s efforts to promote South-South cooperation against Covid-19. At the November 2020 BRICS summit, Putin hailed the efficacy of Russian-made Covid-19 vaccines and proposed a vaccine-sharing initiative within BRICS. This effort has failed to take root. 

China’s distribution of Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines directly competes with Russia’s Sputnik V deliveries, and China has not authorised Russian-made vaccines for use. 

South Africa has also failed to authorise Sputnik V despite repeated assurances to Russia that its approval is imminent. South Africa’s reluctance to authorise Sputnik V is the result of concerns about Sputnik V’s efficacy against its local variant and the absence of a green-light from the World Health Organization.

Brazil approved Sputnik V for use on June 4 after a contentious regulatory process. However, its use is restricted to just 1 percent of the population of Brazilian states that authorise it, and recent contract cancellations will further restrict its reach. 

Although the Indian Serum Institute intends to manufacture 300 million Sputnik V doses each year, a production roadblock on the production of second doses of Sputnik V in India could greatly impede vaccine cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi.

Russia’s botched vaccine diplomacy campaign also has geopolitical consequences. Russia suffers from a soft power deficit in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, in spite of its growing presence in both regions. One of Russia’s key selling points to overcome this deficit is its reliability as a partner to allies in crisis. Russia’s military intervention in Syria and alignment with countries facing US sanctions feature prominently in Moscow’s efforts to frame itself as a reliable partner. 

The inefficacy of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy undercuts the credibility of this critical Kremlin narrative and reinforces negative perceptions of Moscow’s international conduct and governance model. It also risks diluting positive memories of previous Russian public health efforts, such as the Soviet Union’s smallpox eradication campaign and Russian aluminum giant Rusal’s Ebola vaccine trials in West Africa.

One year ago, RDIF chairman Kirill Dmitriev called Russia’s unveiling of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine a “Sputnik moment.” Twelve months later, Russia’s technological achievement has been tarnished by overambitious delivery targets, high costs and vaccine hesitancy at home. 

Russia has lost its first-mover advantage over Europe and the US, which are stepping up their vaccine deliveries to the Global South, and Sputnik V’s role in ending the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to ebb further in the months to come.

Clarification: This article has been updated to include RDIF’s claims about contract renegotiations with Guatemala and links to studies regarding the Sputnik V vaccines in medical journals. We regret any inconvenience caused by the omissions.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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