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’s race to be first with a credible vaccine is also an exercise in the science of state-run spin.
Nationalism has inevitably crept into the breakneck vaccine stakes. President Trump used Tuesday’s debate to tout U.S. pharmaceutical companies in the vaccine hunt and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson donned a white lab coat during a mid-September tour of an Oxford lab seeking a vaccine.
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.