How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dealt a blow to the Sputnik vaccine

·5-min read
A woman receives a dose of Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre at Gostiny Dvor in Moscow, on July 7, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)
A woman receives a dose of Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre at Gostiny Dvor in Moscow, on July 7, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

When Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 jab was unveiled early in the pandemic, the first to be approved by any country, it was billed by its makers as a ‘vaccine for all mankind’. But supply of the jab has faltered from the start, and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks to have put the nail in the coffin of Sputnik’s international ambitions.

Sputnik V started strongly. It became the world’s first registered vaccine in August 2020, and more than 70 countries have since signed deals to import or manufacture it. It is innovative, using two shots with different strains of adenovirus for strong immunity, and easier to store than more temperature-dependent alternatives. Its backer, the sovereign Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) claimed Sputnik could reach 700 million people beyond Russia’s borders in 2021.

However, troubles soon began to surface. By rushing through early tests, Russia created mistrust both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, supply was overpromised. According to UNICEF, fewer than 80 million doses of Sputnik were exported in 2021, 10 per cent of what was initially hoped. There were also delays in the supply of raw materials to those countries manufacturing the vaccine abroad, and the second dose was hard to make. This later led to an innovation of only using a single first dose, known as ‘Sputnik Light’.

By the end of last year, supply issues were coming to a head. “Foreign governments got pretty irritated at non-delivery of promised vaccine” says Professor Judy Twigg of the Virginia Commonwealth University, who is an expert on Russian politics and health. At the start of the pandemic “when everyone was panicking”, many had invested in Sputnik V, but since then, “there’s been a pretty clear pattern of most of those countries preferring the Western alternatives,” she explains, in part because of the greater reliability of supply.

Guatemala, one of many Central and South American states which had orders of Sputnik, halved an order of 16 million jabs due to slow supply. When consumers are given a choice, such as in India, they often opt for Western vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and the recently approved Novavax, according to Professor Twigg.

So the Russian vaccine was already in trouble before the invasion of Ukraine in late February. But the war and its fallout will cause a host of other problems for Sputnik. First, some countries, particularly in Europe, have cancelled Sputnik deals in protest at Russian aggression. Germany and Italy announced they would stop deals even before the war broke out. A Bavarian deal with Russian pharmaceutical company R-Pharm also fell apart. Kenya and Gabon, which made large purchases of the vaccine early in the pandemic, have recently voted with the United Nations motion condemning the invasion, likely marking an end to their already faltering deals.

Secondly, even for countries that have not taken a strong stance on the Ukraine war, supply of Sputnik V is likely to be affected by sanctions. The RDIF itself is under US sanctions for being an alleged “slush fund” for the Russian state - which RDIF denies. Similarly, Russian banks are now almost impossible to pay from the West, since they were cut off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). It is also harder for Russia to import and export raw materials needed for the vaccine, causing problems for nations such as Algeria, Brazil, Egypt, and Mexico, which had deals to make the vaccine and do not have the recipe. Last month, a factory in South Korea suspended production, citing concerns about the impact of sanctions.

“The sanctions are going to make it harder for Russians to produce Sputnik V in quantities sufficient for export, and any customers who want it are going to have a hard time paying for it,” says Professor Twigg.

A healthcare worker administers a dose of Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine to a patient at a vaccination centre in the GUM State Department store in Moscow on October 21, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)
A healthcare worker administers a dose of Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine to a patient at a vaccination centre in the GUM State Department store in Moscow on October 21, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

Thirdly, Sputnik V is now almost certain not to be approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO were set to visit Russia for final tests in March, but their visit was postponed indefinitely due to the war. "We were supposed to go do inspections in Russia on March 7, and these inspections were postponed for a later date," Mariângela Simão, WHO assistant-director general for Access to Medicines and Health Products, said. Professor Twigg thinks WHO approval is now “dead in the water”.

“It’s unimaginable that in the midst of Russian atrocities that WHO would go to Russia and approve this vaccine,” she says. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is also unlikely to approve the vaccine.

Many of the deals around the world were contingent on such approval. Unicef had hoped to vaccinate 110 million people in Nigeria, Paraguay, Somalia, Uganda, Yemen, and Zambia with Sputnik, but this is implausible without a WHO listing.

"Unicef procures Covid-19 vaccines that have received WHO Emergency Use Listing (EUL) status” the UN agency said in a statement. “The Sputnik V vaccine has not yet received a WHO EUL. As such, the Sputnik V vaccine has not been offered for procurement and/or delivery to any specific countries through Unicef."

Lack of regulatory approval may be more a reflection of politics than the vaccine’s effectiveness: a paper in the medical journal The Lancet found high efficacy of the Sputnik vaccine. “They probably would have been better off in their PR if they had just waited until they had the data to make the claims they were making,” Professor Twigg says. “They ended up perversely harming the public relations value of their own product.”

Named after the Soviet satellite which beat the United States in the space race, Sputnik V has always been political. Russian state TV has spread conspiracy theories about adverse side effects of Western vaccines. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed to have received Sputnik V, but is one of the few world leaders not to get jabbed on camera, and at first only confirmed that he was vaccinated without identifying the brand. Vaccine hesitancy is strong in Russia with a Covid vaccination rate of under 60 per cent.

There is still space for Russian vaccine diplomacy, particularly after a recent US budget decision to cut $5 billion from the global pandemic response, says Professor Twigg. If Russia is willing to donate jabs to poorer countries, it is possible it may be able to increase international supply in some circumstances in the future.

But for now, it seems unlikely that Sputnik V will be anything close to the vaccine for all mankind.