A health care worker prepares a dose of Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, at the Del Norte Hospital in El Alto, Bolivia, on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021.

Sputnik V vaccine is nearly 92% effective — a 'political win for Putin'

Public health expert Judy Twigg says that the Sputnik V vaccine study increases Russia's soft power influence around the globe.

The World

Russian scientists say the country's Sputnik V vaccine appears safe and effective against COVID-19, according to early results of an advanced study published Tuesday online in the British medical journal The Lancet.

The news is a boost for the vaccine, which governments around the world are purchasing in the race to stop the coronavirus pandemic from causing more devastation. Researchers said that based on a fall trial involving about 20,000 people in Russia, the vaccine is nearly 92% effective and appears to prevent inoculated individuals from becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

Scientists not linked to the research acknowledged that the speed at which the vaccine was made and rolled out had brought criticism to Russia's efforts as “unseemly haste, corner-cutting and an absence of transparency.”

Related: As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, does the world face 'tragedy of the commons'?

The vaccine was approved by the Russian government with much fanfare las year on Aug. 11. At the time, the vaccine had only been tested on several dozen people and the move elicited criticism from experts both at home and abroad.

The World’s host Marco Werman spoke to Judy Twigg, a public health expert at Virginia Commonwealth University, who specializes in Russia, Ukraine and other parts of Eurasia, about the Sputnik vaccine study and how its results may impact the global race on the COVID-19 vaccination.

Twigg says that the news on the effectiveness of the Sputnik V does not change what we already knew about the vaccine.

"What we hear today with this peer-reviewed publication from The Lancet confirms what the Russian government and the vaccine developers have been telling us all along — that the vaccine is highly effective and safe," she said. 

Marco Werman: Back in August, as you'll remember, when Russia first approved the vaccine, there was a lot of skepticism among experts about Sputnik V, why was that?

Judy Twigg: Russia, going back to the Soviet days, has a fairly well-developed history of making exaggerated or premature claims about its scientific achievements — especially in the biomedical sector. So, we have had for a couple of decades some claims coming out of Russia that they've developed an HIV/AIDS vaccine, which, of course, we have yet to see. They made claims about having developed and deployed in the field, vaccines for MERS and for Ebola. Those were overstated claims.

So, when they announced back in mid-August this vaccine for COVID-19, there was something of a current of, well, "there they go again," in response to these claims. But as we've gone forward, as we've seen more development of the vaccine through the clinical trial process, it's become clear that this is a solid vaccine. And so, I think most people aren't too surprised that we have the good results that we're seeing published in The Lancet today. 

So, with those results, fairly impressive results, how do you think this will affect the global vaccine market?

Where Sputnik is claiming advantage is in its willingness to make licensing and production deals with vaccine manufacturers all over the world, in other words, they're not holding on to proprietary data, as some of the other vaccine companies are.

This is clearly a diplomatic, a foreign policy move. This is Russia's efforts to portray itself as friendly to many of the poorer and lower-, middle-income countries around the world which have been left on the sidelines in terms of vaccine distribution. This is Russia's effort to move into a vacuum created by vaccine nationalism of the Western countries, which are, to some extent, hoarding so much of the available vaccine supply for themselves.

We're hearing this not just from what we traditionally think of as poor countries in poor parts of the world, but we're also seeing this, for example, in Europe's backyard in the Balkans, some very important considerations now from countries like Serbia, and some of the other Eastern European countries that have been leaning toward Western Europe, identifying with the Western world since the end of the Cold War. And now, they're leaning toward not only Russian but Chinese vaccine products because that's what's available.

Yeah, that soft power angle of Sputnik V is there for Russia to exploit. Some countries have already received shipments of Sputnik V from Russia. Argentina had been desperate for a vaccine and some there thought they were settling on Sputnik V. Now they must be pretty elated with this news. Which other countries are next in line and what will be the considerations for those countries of whether to go with Sputnik V rather than Pfizer, Moderna or any of the others?

Well, we're up to dozens of countries around the world that have announced deals with Sputnik V, from literally every part of the globe. And for many of those countries, the imperatives of the pandemic are going to outweigh any perceived negative implications of dealing with an authoritarian country like Russia.

I'm sure there are many countries that would prefer to be dealing with the United States or Western Europe as their suppliers of vaccines. But it's hard to ignore the cost availability calculation when you're desperate in the middle of a pandemic and now you have a scientifically proven alternative source.

Elaborate a bit more on that, because I'm wondering what the political role in Russia is for the Sputnik V vaccine. Could this be a heroic moment for Putin that'll give him a shine going forward?  

He's already tried to make it that. So back on Aug. 11, when Russia first approved the Sputnik V vaccine, it was with balloons, confetti, celebration. It was a hugely splashy launch, both globally, but especially inside Russia. They had a very slick website for the vaccine ready to go at the moment they announced its approval on Aug. 11. It was in seven languages, the website, but most importantly, state-controlled media in Russia has been talking about very little other than this vaccine and its first-in-the-world status, the implications of being first in the world with a COVID -19 vaccine for Russia and its reemergence as a scientific great power.

You asked whether Putin would want to use today's article in The Lancet as sort of a political win. He's already been doing that since August. This is very much something that Putin wants to use to reaffirm, to establish the message with the Russian people that his government can reestablish Russia as one of the leading countries in the world.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 314 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.