by Miceál O’Hurley
Dublin – GeoPolitics and science are now fully at the fore as the world struggles more than one-year after the Covid-19 pandemic began to ravage societies across the globe. In Europe, the EU has publicly derided Russia’s ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine supply campaign as the ‘propaganda‘ of an ‘undesirable regime‘. In the US, the intelligence community has opined that Russia, China and Iran engaged in a massive disinformation campaign to undermine public confidence in Western efforts to develop safe and effective vaccines. Both the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine narratives have become largely shaped by geopolitics as much as they have by science, leaving the public vacillating between fear and rage. The EU may have inadvertently added to their public confidence tribulations by temporarily suspending the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine out of fears of it causing blood clots which turned out not to be true.
EU Fragmented Over Vaccines
The EU has engaged in a publicly conflicted stance on the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine. In a January 2021 webinar, Emer Cooke, Executive Director of the European Medicines Agency stated, “We will evaluate any vaccine, regardless of its origin. I can say that, the Russian vaccine, we’re in discussions with the Russian vaccine developer.” Only this week, Charles Michel, the EU Council President said, “We should not let ourselves be misled by China and Russia, both regimes with less desirable values than ours, as they organise highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines to others.” On Feb. 17, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen questioned Russia’s reasons for exporting millions of doses despite a slow domestic vaccination roll-out. According to EU data, fewer Russian people have been vaccinated, proportionally, than in the EU. The Kremlin did not release an official response to EU Council President Michel’s comments or those of EC President von der Leyen.
All the while EU bloc members such as Hungary and Slovakia have already purchased the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine and the Czech Republic has publicly indicated it is already in end-stage negotiations to purchase the Russian vaccine. In Moldova, a member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Moldova’s Medicines and Medical Devices Agency approved Russia’s ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine after the newly elected, decidedly anti-Russian President Maia Sandu was accused by her Kremlin-friendly predecessor Igor Dodon of blocking Sputnik’s use in the country. President Sandu has denied she intervened in any attempt to stop any safe and effective vaccines from being approved.
With Italy now returning to significantly more stringent lockdowns in the face of increased infection rates, and France battling another wave of Covid-19 infections the desire to obtain vaccines before variants place the Covid-19 pandemic beyond control again is pressing. Italy has indicated it is considering using its biggest vaccine-producing bioreactor at a ReiThera plant, near Rome, to manufacture the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine to meet Italy’s pressing need to vaccinate its population. ReiThera, a public-private partnership in which the State owns a 30% share, and is developing their own COVID-19 vaccine, declined to comment on the Italian Government’s consideration of using their facility for the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine production.
Meanwhile, an EU official dealing with negotiations with vaccine makers, not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and speaking on background, told Reuters that EU governments were considering launching talks with ‘Sputnik V‘ developers and it would take requests from four EU states to start the process. And, in yet another round of mixed-messaging, a Spokesman for the European Commission, which coordinates talks with vaccine makers, said the EU was not required to launch talks with ‘Sputnik V‘ developers, even if the bloc’s drug regulator approves the vaccine.
Criticism of EU’s Handling of Covid-19 Vaccines & Vaccinations
To date, the EU has signed deals with six vaccine makers. It is currently in negotiation with two other pharmaceutical makers. All of the vaccines approved by the EU at this point have been with Western pharmaceutical makers. The EU has come under sharp criticism for glitches that have slowed its inoculation campaign and for some member states are seeking their own solutions. Should Russia see its ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine included in the EU’s approved vaccine list would present the conundrum of both seeing vaccines roll-out more quickly and yet hand Russia a social and political victory which many in the EU feel is repugnant to EU interests. Again, science and geopolitics are in sharp competition.
Russia has been on a self-inflicted collision course with Europe for more than a decade following the occupation of the Transnistria Region of Moldova, the invasion and occupation of 20% of Georgia’s territory in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia Regions, as well as Russia’s attempted illegal annexation of Crimea and support for insurgents in the Donbas Region of Ukraine. Russia saw her many of her diplomats expelled from Europe in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK in 2018, and the subsequent poisoning of Charlie Rowley and the death of his partner Dawn Sturgess by the Russian engineered, manufactured and internationally banned Novichok nerve agent. The imprisonment of Alexi Navalny, following what German physicians determined was another Novichok poisining, has only still further alienated Russia from the EU. In a statement on Twitter, EU High Commissioner Joseph Borrell Fontelles said that his recent visit to Russia only “highlighted that Russia does not want to seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue with the EU. This is regrettable and we will have to draw the consequences.”
For many in the EU, allowing Russia to claim a victory through what they term a ‘Vaccine Propaganda War‘ would only serve to reward Russia for a long-history of aggression and undermining Europe’s democracies. However, owing the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, mixed-messaging and lackluster roll-out of vaccination programmes, the EU bloc is under great pressure to deliver to the public. With a growing chasm of ‘vaccine poverty‘ from Ukraine to the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as throughout Asia, Africa and South America, there is a distinct risk that the EU bloc may break its solidarity would also risk dividing the bloc between those states dead set against giving Moscow any kind of win and those in favour of showing that Brussels can cooperate with the Kremlin.
Much of the criticism of the ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine arose after the Kremlin announced it has successfully developed a Covid-19 vaccine, months ahead of any other Western pharmaceutical developers and did so without submitting the vaccine to robust clinical trials or critical peer-review. In February 2021 the narrative began to change, with the ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine earning a favourable peer review published in the British medical journal The Lancet.
After The Lancet journal concluded the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine was “92% effective“, higher than the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine and close to both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, all approved by the European Medicines Agency for use in the EU, the narrative regarding accessing the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine began to tilt in favour of Russia and her vaccine. Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief, a consumate Brussels insider, who was recently elected as Italy’s new Prime Minister, has been using his clout and connections to push for the EU to embrace Russia and the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine for use and production within the EU. Italy, which is currently considering use of the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine, has traditionally held one of the softer stances concerning the Kremlin and its relationship with Europe. At his debut EU Summit as Italy’s Prime Minister on 25 February, Draghi advocated for the EU to purchase more doses of available vaccines, including vaccines developed outside the EU bloc. He also urged the EU to use its influence and resources to expand vaccine production.
Brussels is acutely aware of the tension access to vaccines is causing within the EU bloc. Add to this the geopolitics of holding Russia accountable for everything from poisonings to invasions and the occupation of neighbouring countries by force, serious human rights concerns, including the recent imprisonment of dissident Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, concensus becomes increasingly difficult on all matters relating to Russia and given the time and disinformation campaigns of which Russia stands accused, the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine is especially fraught with controversy. With relations between Europe and Russia at near Cold War levels, it remains to be seen if science or geopolitics prevail when it comes to the EU’s potential approval of the Russian ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine.
According to one highly placed EU official who declined to be identified, “[The EU] will fall into the usual divide: ‘it’s Russian it’s bad’ versus ‘well, come on, we need to work together with those people. There are some who will not want to give [Russia] this propaganda victory, and there are others who will be seeing this as an opportunity to actually show that we are cooperating.”
Diplomat Ireland has reproduced the following Statement provided by His Excellency Mr. Yuriy Filatov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Ireland, in response to the debate surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and the ‘Sputnik V‘ vaccine:
The World Needs Vaccines Not Politics – Statement by the Russian Ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Mr. Yuriy Filatov
More than a year after global spread of the COVID-19 infection, no one doubts that vaccination will play one of the key roles in putting an end to the pandemic and returning to normal life. The issue now is to provide as many vaccines as possible.
Since the very outset of the pandemic Russia has been actively engaged in massive research aimed at developing effective COVID-19 vaccines. This work has been done by major immunology research centers in Russia, known worldwide for its contribution to the development of drugs and vaccines against dangerous infections which were successfully used before in many countries and regions. This resulted in introduction of Sputnik V, which became the first registered vaccine against coronavirus in the world. Developed by the Gamaleya Federal Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology it is one of the most effective and safe vaccines showing efficacy of 91.6% and is the main vaccine in the rollout in Russia. Other Russian research institutions followed the lead. Jabs of the second Russian-made vaccine EpiVacCorona by the State Scientific Center of Virology and Biotechnology “Vector”, which successfully passed necessary clinical trials and was duly registered, have been administered in Russian regions since mid-February. The third vaccine CoviVac, developed at the Chumakov Federal Scientific Center for Research and Development of Immune and Biological Products, was registered on February 20. Its rollout is expected to begin imminently. All vaccines are unique and do not duplicate each other. This creates flexibilities in inoculating different categories of people depending on their age and preconditions.
At first, the success of the Russian scientists was met with certain skepticism based on false perceptions that they “cut corners” by having registered a vaccine allegedly without adequate scientific data. Some of the concerns expressed were genuine, others were clearly prejudiced and politicized. Life has proven all sceptics wrong. The publication in the reputable scientific journal “Lancet” confirmed the high efficacy and safety of Sputnik V, which led to its recognition by the international scientific community.
Henceforth, there has been a great interest in Sputnik V in many quarters of the world. As of today, this vaccine is approved for use in 51 countries with a total population of over 1.3 billion people. Russia continues to receive many requests from partners, including the EU members, for direct supplies of Sputnik V. Interestingly, many Irish citizens and media representatives regularly write to the Embassy asking if the Irish government contacted on the issue of Sputnik V supplies and seeking the ways to receive the Russian jab. I would like to assure all of them that we would like to help and are open for any discussions on vaccine supplies to Ireland as well as other aspects of cooperation with the Russian vaccine producers – if there is an interest on the Irish Government side.
Russia has not been in political “vaccine race” and Sputnik V rollout is not a propaganda exercise. Public health, both domestically and internationally, is at stake. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe – that is the ruling principle for Russia. Though our abilities have limits, we are ready to share what we have. Sputnik V and other Russian vaccines are the part of the common global effort to curtail the pandemic. Aside from Sputnik V, there is a number of other vaccines developed in China, the EU, the USA, Great Britain and that is good – the more, the better.
In this regard, it is particularly strange to hear from the EU leaders in Brussels allegations about Russia playing “geopolitical games” with vaccines. We understand frustration of some high-ranking EU officials in the face of current vaccines procurement and distribution problems but “Russia bashing” is definitely not a way to solve them. Since the registration of Sputnik V, Russia has been offering collaboration to all interested parties, regardless of political considerations and with no strings attached. In the situation when countries need to address the pandemic jointly and solve the problem of vaccines shortages, there is no place for politicking around COVID-19. We look forward to cooperation, not competition.
Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Ireland
18 March, 2021