Andrew E. Kramer
MOSCOW — Russia has lauded with much fanfare the arrival of its homegrown vaccine, Sputnik V, in Latin America and Africa, and even in some countries in Europe, calling it a solution to shortages around the world.
It has been less vocal, though, about one country that is also importing the vaccine: Russia.
The Russian government has contracted out the manufacture of Sputnik V to a South Korean company that has already sent the vaccine to Russia, and plans to do the same with a company from India.
While the scale of the imports are impossible to gauge because of nondisclosure agreements, they undermine some of the narrative Russia has proudly presented about its role in the pandemic as an exporter of vaccines to needy countries.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The imports, which are expected to ramp up in coming weeks and months, could help Russia overcome a dismally slow vaccination rollout at home. They also illustrate that even countries whose scientists designed successful shots rely on cross-border trade for vaccine supplies.
Russian officials said last fall that overseas manufacturing could partly meet demand at home, but have since gone quiet about importing a product that has been held up as a triumph of the country’s scientists. Manufacturing the vaccine in Russia, however, has been a different story.
Russia received two cargo planes loaded with Sputnik V from the South Korean manufacturer, GL Rapha, in December and the company expects to send another shipment in coming days. Indian vaccine makers are also expected to export the Russian-designed vaccine to Russia, according to Indian diplomats.
“We face the prospect of increasing this cooperation in the field of vaccines,” India’s ambassador to Russia, Shri Varma, said at a news conference in January. “We envisage a major rolling out of Sputnik vaccine in India, using the Indian production capacities for India, for Russia and for the entire world.”
Russia has four production deals in India. One Indian company, Virchow Biotech in Hyderabad, India, last week signed a manufacturing deal with Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, to make 200 million doses a year of Sputnik V.
Russian vaccine production got off to a slow start as producers struggled for months last fall to obtain biotechnology equipment that is made in China, and was in short supply.
This past week, President Vladimir Putin said that enough Sputnik V to fully inoculate 8.9 million people had been distributed in Russia since regulators approved the drug last August. Russia’s minister of industry said Monday he expected a quick ramp-up by April to twice that amount every month.
Russia’s vaccination campaign has fallen far behind that of most European nations and the United States. Russia has vaccinated 4.4% of its population, compared to 10% in the European Union and 26% in the United States.
The Kremlin this past week for the first time acknowledged that scarcity of the vaccine played a role in Putin’s decision to delay his own inoculation to avoid stimulating demand for shots before they became widely available outside the capital.
In January, when Putin became eligible for a shot under Russian rules based on his age, “production was not yet sufficient to fully meet demand in the regions,” said his spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov.
It’s not clear how large a role the imports will play in alleviating scarcity, accelerating vaccinations and saving lives in Russia. But it positions Russia lower in the pecking order of vaccine geopolitics, as an importer rather than just an exporter.
Russian officials have chosen to highlight exports, however. “A vaccine for all humankind,” the Sputnik V website declares. State media has lavished attention on even relatively small shipments of tens or hundreds of thousands of doses to foreign countries.
More than 20 countries have begun vaccinating with small amounts of shots provided by Russia, including Argentina, Hungary, Bolivia, Algeria, Paraguay and others. Russian officials have said that most demand for Sputnik V in foreign countries will be met by overseas production.
But vaccine nationalism by countries with production capacity appears to be on the rise. Contracts for delivery or rights to a vaccine design proved less important than controlling the means of production in two shifts in the vaccine trade this week.
India, a major vaccine maker, last week held back from export nearly all of the 2.4 million doses manufactured by a private company, the Serum Institute of India, as the number of infections from the coronavirus shot up across the country. The European Union also moved on emergency legislation to curb vaccine exports, a change that could limit British imports of the AstraZeneca vaccine designed at Oxford University from producers in the bloc.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said it was the “the end of naïveté” for the European Union, which has significant production capacity but had been exporting doses despite rapidly rising cases within the bloc.
The United States and Britain have both imported domestically designed vaccines made in foreign countries. The United States has done so while prohibiting some exports of U.S.-made doses abroad.
Russia imported the South Korean-produced Sputnik V in December as it expanded the categories of people eligible for vaccination. The doses arrived in two Asiana Airlines cargo planes, according to an announcement by the airline, which was touting its cold shipment service.
In written answers to questions, GL Rapha, the Korean manufacturer, said it could not discuss shipments because of the nondisclosure agreement.
The company said it expects to produce 150 million doses of Sputnik V this year. The Russian Direct Investment Fund did not respond to questions about imports to Russia.
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