MOSCOW — Included in Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech at the United Nations last month was an offer: All U.N. staff could receive Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, free of charge.
Russia, too, had turned up the patriotic volume along with the vaccine push. In a promotional video that was part of the rollout for Sputnik V — whose name itself taps into the pride of the Soviet Union being first out of the blocks in the Cold War’s space race with a satellite in 1957 — the vaccine is portrayed circling a coronavirus-infected earth, wiping out the disease as it goes.
Now that the global competition is heating up — 10 possible vaccines are undergoing Phase 3 testing, according to the World Health Organization — Russia has further amped up its rhetoric around Sputnik V.
Russia is now going on the offensive.
The Kremlin-directed campaign to promote Sputnik V has largely dismissed any criticism — especially claims that Russia is cutting corners on safety — as anti-Russian smears. Meanwhile, Russian officials are attempting to cast doubt on rival vaccine hunters with unsupported assertions, such as making claims that Western approaches to find a vaccine are less effective and riskier.
In August, Putin announced that Russia registered the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, even before the start of Phase 3 large-scale clinical trials. That day, he said one of his two daughters received the prospective vaccine and experienced only mild symptoms — a startling disclosure since he rarely mentions his children in public.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin “is thinking” about getting vaccinated himself.
“This is not a gentlemanly stroll in the park by a bunch of people who all agree that there’s some common public good we all need to strive for,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Center on Global Health Policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This has become a geopolitical race, and it’s one that’s seen as tied to domestic stability and support amid lots of adversity.”
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled the country’s vaccination effort, has frequently hailed Sputnik V’s delivery system: two doses to carry different, harmless cold viruses, or human adenoviruses. They have been engineered in hopes of carrying cells of the gene for the coronavirus.
The investment fund’s head, Kirill Dmitriev, has taken aim at other labs seeking a vaccine using adenoviruses from monkeys or messenger RNA.
After Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca resumed their coronavirus vaccine trial following a week-long pause because of an unexplained illness in a trial participant, Dmitriev issued a comment that he was “delighted” trials resumed. Unlike Sputnik V, their vaccine uses a cold virus from a monkey rather than a human.
“At the same time, the suspension of trials clearly showed the fallacy of the approach, when entire countries exclusively rely on novel and untested platforms when choosing a vaccine for widespread use,” Dmitriev’s statement continued.
Morrison said Dmitriev’s comments “sound like propaganda.”
“Trying to bad-mouth other competitors’ vaccines seems like a little bit of rowdy behavior,” Morrison said.
Sputnik V is undergoing Phase 3 testing with 40,000 volunteers, but the production rights for millions of doses have already been sold to several countries, including India, Brazil and Mexico.
In another move to show confidence in the potential vaccine, Russia will shoulder some of the legal risks should anything go awry, Dmitriev said, rather than seeking full indemnity as many other vaccine-makers have sought.
That could be an international selling point for Russia compared to vaccine candidates that use a similar technology, such as ones from pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson and the Chinese company CanSino Biologics.
“Countries have a choice to make, and we think they’ll focus on a portfolio of different vaccines,” Dmitriev said. “But we’re absolutely sure that a human adenovirus vaccine will be in the portfolio of most countries.”
But for all of Russia’s efforts to convince its international skeptics, Sputnik V doesn’t have strong domestic support yet.
An August poll found that 54 percent of the more than 1,600 respondents said they were not ready to volunteer for vaccination, according to the independent Levada Center.
Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko told the state-run Tass news agency in September that Sputnik V will be more widely available to the general population in late November or December.
Alexey Kuznetsov, an aide to Murashko, said in a statement that “voluntary vaccination of citizens at risk has begun: first of all, medical workers and teachers.” But the Health Ministry has declined to say how many teachers and front-line health-care workers have so far volunteered to receive Sputnik V.
Leonid Perlov, a 66-year-old who teaches geography in Moscow, said he was offered the potential vaccine but declined because it “has not passed all of the necessary stages of testing.”
“This is all premature,” he added.
But not for everyone. He noticed a divide among his colleagues — perhaps influenced by the Kremlin’s heavy emphasis on the possible vaccine as a symbol of national pride.
“The biology teachers are not in a hurry to get vaccinated,” Perlov noted. “They’re more cautious. But the history teachers are the ones who are ready to volunteer.”
After Russia’s daily ticker of confirmed new coronavirus cases showed steady decline over the summer, infections have started rising again to more than 8,000 per day, sparking local fear that another nationwide lockdown could soon follow.
The economy suffered from the closures in April and May, and Putin’s approval ratings consequently slumped. Russia may point to its vaccine as justification for avoiding a second round of strict restrictions.
Olga Demicheva, an endocrinologist in Moscow, said she volunteered to be a Phase 3 clinical trial participant for Sputnik V, but doesn’t believe that the possible vaccine should be available even for high-risk groups before that large-scale testing is completed.
Semyon Galperin, head of the Doctors’ Defense League rights group, opted for a similar compromise.
“My volunteering is to hopefully prevent a situation where there is some pressure on our [medical] colleagues to get vaccinated,” Galperin said. “Before the clinical trials are complete, we shouldn’t tell anyone to get vaccinated or not.”