“It is guaranteed safe and effective,” says a voice with what’s probably meant to be a heavy Russian accent. “How do we know? Because it was tested on a bear, by a scientist who is also a bear.” This is an excerpt from a September edition of The Daily Show, and the subject was the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V. It hasn’t aged well: Now that a peer-reviewed article in The Lancet has established Sputnik as safe and effective, the initial failure of many countries to believe in it looks like a missed opportunity.
The list of countries ordering the Sputnik vaccine is now growing. But given that Russia approved Sputnik back in August, long before any other vaccine got the green light, why didn’t it achieve wider use more quickly? Why didn’t the European Union, which faces a massive vaccine shortage, order it along with other vaccines which also weren’t yet approved when the orders were being made?
There’s a simplistic answer to these questions: Because the West believes its own propaganda. All that bear stuff — can you imagine a 2020 U.S. TV program mocking Chinese or Indians in that way, fake accent and all?
As Thomas Friedman recently declared in the New York Times, “The only Russian exports that appeal to Westerners are caviar, vodka and nesting dolls — and we’re full up on all three.” Such stereotypes — the “gas station masquerading as a country” trope, the notion that progress bypassed post-Soviet Russia and it still subsists on hoary Soviet scientific and technological achievements — make it hard to believe that Russia is capable of producing a genetically engineered vaccine that’s easier to store and transport and cheaper to produce than the universally recognized Pfizer vaccine.
But then, the whole idea of fighting COVID-19 rests on listening to experts. And the experts knew that no bears were involved in Sputnik V’s design. Its chief developer, Denis Logunov, is a much-published, respected microbiologist — and he’s only 42, not a Soviet-era dinosaur.
In 2016, he and a team from his research center, the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology, were responsible for the development of an Ebola vaccine, which is cleared for use in Russia and has shown a good efficiency level in tests — even as two other Western-developed vaccines have been approved for use in Africa and the Russian one still hasn’t.
More recently, the team worked on a vaccine against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, caused, like COVID-19, by a coronavirus. Because of their Ebola and MERS experience, Logunov and his team were ahead of many others when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. They used the same approach — it was “literally copy and paste,” Logunov explained in a rare interview with the Latvia-based website Meduza last year.
In other words, the right people knew the Russian vaccine effort was as serious as any other. And yet that knowledge didn’t translate into acceptance and orders.
The likely reasons for that go well beyond the stereotypes of Russia as a backward country. It’s not because of what Russian propaganda likes to call “Russophobia” that the Russian Ebola vaccine fell behind others, not because of stereotypes that Sputnik V squandered its development lead, or that the MERS vaccine will likely encounter the same lack of uptake (even though no competing products have been approved for that virus, either).
The main problem has been that the Gamaleya Center is a state-funded, state-owned organization. The Russian state handles everything except the actual vaccine development. Like many Russians, Logunov has decided (and said so in the interview) that his narrow area of expertise is his only concern. But for a state enterprise, business strategy always comes a distant second to political considerations.
That is why Sputnik, despite being a development success, has been a production and distribution failure: Russia, the biggest country to have approved it, lags far behind others in doses administered, though since December, it has striven to make the vaccine available to all regardless of age.
The marketing fiasco began when Russia rushed Sputnik’s approval. Most countries have cut bureaucratic corners and taken risks when it came to adopting anti-COVID-19 medications, but the Russian announcement — the first in the world! — came when even the experts familiar with Logunov’s work couldn’t help but doubt that the vaccine was safe to use. Questions ensued that only further testing and peer review could eliminate; by the time the definitive Lancet article came out, it was already February 2021.
While the private pharmaceutical companies also involved in the vaccine race were quietly applying for the necessary approvals in major markets, getting regulators to speed up the process and talking behind the scenes to government customers about prices and supplies, the Russian government was busy trumpeting its world-beating success — and hurting Sputnik’s chances of access to major markets.
With their enormous lobbying resources, companies such as Pfizer and Astra Zeneca knew exactly what to do to get results; the Russian propaganda apparatus was more interested in making noise, and possibly, dare I suggest it, in getting rejected: The Russophobia narrative is the air it breathes.
Another big error was to involve Russian President Vladimir Putin in the marketing. It’s not just that he has dissembled so much that few people are willing to take his word for anything; it’s not that Western governments are reluctant to grant him any kind of victory; while trumpeting Sputnik’s supremacy, he has not been seen receiving a jab himself, and that would have disqualified him as a salesman under any circumstances.
So, time was wasted on undermining Sputnik’s credibility instead of raising it. That, in turn, made it harder to ramp up production. Gamaleya has its own manufacturing, and a couple of Russian companies have been allowed to make Sputnik under license, but broad international distribution is only possible if local production partners are found in the countries that approve the vaccine for use.
Few such deals were approved ahead of the Feb. 2 Lancet article, and it’s unclear whether the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which handles Sputnik V as a business project, used the time it had to make sure the supply chain was scalable; its head, Kirill Dmitriev, warned of possible delays in the planned ramp-up because of supply complexities.
The RDIF is supposedly business-oriented, but it’s a sovereign fund that’s an arm of the Russian government. Instead of opening doors to the vaccine, it closes them except in the most anti-Western or the neediest of countries such as Iran or Nicaragua.
It’s one thing to buy a Russian-developed product, but another to deal directly with the Putin regime. Dmitriev said earlier this month that getting approval in big Western markets is “not a priority” because of the “obvious political constraints of working with Russia.”
But if the difficulties were that obvious, why wasn’t the international distribution farmed out to a private entity as far removed from the government as possible — unless, again, the goal was not to achieve widespread success, but to create a distribution map that would illustrate how the West shuns Russia even as the rest of the world is willing to deal with it?
In other words, even as the Russian government funded the development of a highly effective, highly competitive vaccine by the first-class brains that, pace Thomas Friedman, are not rare in Russian research institutions, its heavy-handed politicized bungling of marketing and distribution has, in effect, held back its global success.
As a resident of Germany, I’m angry at the German government for its failure to secure an adequate supply of COVID-19 vaccines — but I’m not angry at it for missing its chance to sign up for Sputnik: Russia’s “sales effort” made it an easy proposition to refuse.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin.
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