Countries are lining up for Russia’s once-scorned Sputnik vaccine

( – President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in August that Russia had cleared the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine for use before it even completed safety trials sparked skepticism 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 U.S. and European shots, and far more effectively than Chinese rivals.

At least 20 countries have approved the inoculation for use, including European Union member-state Hungary, while key markets such as Brazil and India are close to authorizing it. Now Russia is setting its sights on the prized EU market as the bloc struggles with its vaccination program amid supply shortages.

Results from the late-stage trials of 20,000 participants reviewed in The Lancet showed that the vaccine has a 91.6% success rate.

While it’s too early to gauge the political gains for Putin, Russia’s 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 won’t change hostility toward Putin among Western governments, though it could strengthen Russia’s geopolitical clout in regions such as Latin America, according to 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.

Despite Russia’s success, domestic demand remains lukewarm so far, driven by public suspicion of the authorities. Putin, 68, fueled the skepticism in December when he said he was waiting to get the inoculation until it had been cleared for people his age.

He still hasn’t said whether he’s been vaccinated, but other nations aren’t waiting to find out. The day after announcing he’d contracted Covid-19, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Jan. 25 he’d thanked a “genuinely affectionate” 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 program after taking delivery of more than half a million Sputnik V doses by January. It’s 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 Plc’s shot. Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast are among other potential customers for Russia.

France’s industry minister said she’s “agnostic” when it comes to approving the Russian vaccine. “Any vaccine that’s ready and that presents the safety and efficacy conditions is welcome in Europe,” Agnes Pannier-Runacher said during an interview on France Info TV on Sunday. “We have an interest in having the maximum of different vaccines and volumes.”

Hungary has already granted emergency approval, signing a deal for 2 million doses of Sputnik V with the first 40,000 shots delivered Tuesday. “The vaccine cannot be a political question,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state radio Jan. 29. “One can only choose between western and eastern vaccines when you have enough.”

European approval may take several months because of the need to submit detailed data, The Lancet’s Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton told Bloomberg’s QuickTake. “I do think this Russian vaccine will come on tap,” but “not quickly,” he said.

Still, the vaccine is paying dividends for Putin. Even as he visited Moscow Friday to confront Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell took time to congratulate Russia on developing Sputnik V.

“It’s good news for the whole mankind,” Borrell said. “It means that we are going to have more tools to face the pandemic.”

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