By Ingrid Jiménez

While Big Pharma sells its COVID-19 vaccines to rich countries, Russia sells its Sputnik V to poor ones, including Latin America, and spreads disinformation about those developed in the West.

In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) launched its first satellite into space, named Sputnik, getting ahead of the United States (US) in the space race. Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with a population over 144 million and an economy in crisis affected by the pandemic, unabashedly displays the Soviet legacy and its most recent achievement: The first vaccine against COVID-19, named after the mythical Soviet satellite.

Amidst the pandemic, in August 2020, President Putin announced the development of the vaccine. Sputnik V immediately aroused doubts among the scientific community as it was introduced before Phase III, corresponding to mass testing, during which researchers fully assess the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.

In the following months, Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca developed effective vaccines. As expected, richer countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, the US, and those in the European Union (EU) bought most of the production from Big Pharma, leaving poor and middle-income countries with little chance of purchasing it.

However, doubts about the effectiveness of the Russian vaccine were recently put to rest. According to clinical trials published by the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, Sputnik V is 91.6% effective against COVID-19. 

In Latin America, only a few left-wing governments such as Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia had shown interest in Sputnik. Following the publication of the research, some 50 countries requested over 2.4 billion doses. 

Even the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, said that the support given by the scientific community to the vaccine is “good news for the whole mankind”. He also hopes that the European Medicines Agency will certify its effectiveness.

However, part of Europe has reservations about the political implications of purchasing the Russian vaccine. German Health Minister Jens Spahn put it bluntly [source in Spanish]: “Russia and China are playing foreign policy with vaccines, trying to gain influence”. 

For Latin America, which has been hard hit by the virus, the possibilities accessing the vaccine constitute a hope of immunizing a large part of its population, as well as the first step to start thinking about a post-pandemic future.

For Russia, it means a business opportunity and the expansion of its presence in the region, beyond Maduro’s Venezuela. The leftist tide in the region’s governments may open the possibility of closer cooperative relations at least with Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, and probably Ecuador. 

Sputnik V’s success strengthens the narrative of the Russian government, which wants to show the West that Russia is coping better with the pandemic. To spread its message, it does not hesitate to resort to disinformation, a strategy that has so far worked to divide and shed doubts among its adversaries.  

Russia’s disinformation has gambled on discrediting Western vaccines. European Union researchers have found that these campaigns target countries with the highest cases of COVID-19 such as Brazil, Indonesia, and India. The campaign labels Western vaccines as experimental and accuses them of relying on unproven technologies. On the contrary, it portrays Sputnik as better and more effective than all Western vaccines.

It seems that the historical confrontation between Russia and the West has moved onto the stage of the vaccine race. Russia will not miss the opportunity to regain its standing as a superpower, lost after the dissolution of the USSR, as well as to expand its area of influence through cooperation agreements with the governments of Latin America and Europe, regardless of their ideological leanings. 

Nor can it be overlooked that, domestically, Putin needs to keep his iron grip on the country for the last 20 years, in view of the signs of fatigue that are already beginning to show. Sputnik V’s success will be very useful in his agenda to stay in power until 2036.

After a year of pandemic, it is disturbing to see that authoritarian governments have grown stronger by the restrictions imposed in reason of the virus. Sputnik V is therefore not only a great scientific achievement, but also a political one for ailing Russia.

Medianalisis Cotejo Fake News En Este País