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The First Will Be The Last: The Curse Of Sputnik – OpEd


It’s an honor to be the first in something, but it’s also difficult because you are forced to travel off beaten path. But this is true only if the first place was achieved in a fair competition.

One thing is certain – Russia was the first country to announce it has developed a vaccine against Covid-19. This fact cannot be disputed, but the effectiveness of the vaccine is an entirely different story. We have already discussed this, so I won’t repeat myself, but you can read how European experts are doubting the Russian Covid-19 vaccine.1 Russia was also the first country to begin vaccination, and this also is an undisputable fact.

Of course, it’s great to be the first to develop the vaccine, but what is more important is whether the vaccine is effective. It’s also great to be able to be the first to begin vaccinating the population, but it’s more important to be the first to complete the vaccination of the entire population. Russia is a vast country, but this also means it has more resources that other countries. This should be the case, but it seems that in reality it is far from it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked French President Emmanuel Macron to aid Russia in the production of the Sputnik V vaccine. This was reported by the French newspaper Challenges citing a diplomatic source. The Kremlin’s website also contains information than on 7 November Putin during a phone call with Macron expressed that Russia should cooperate with the French Pasteur Institute in Paris. Macron asked for some time to discuss this with scientists. Although already back then Moscow promised that mass vaccination will begin this year, it turns out that Russia does not possess the capacity to produce the vaccine in the required amount. In late October, Putin admitted that there are “certain problems” with the equipment required to begin mass production.2

We can congratulate Russia on being first, but what if being first is its only achievement? How will everything unfold is unclear, but it looks like Russia is once again merely boasting. Russia was also the first country to announce that it will begin vaccinating its people. Now, other countries have joined Russia. Which vaccine will be the most effective – only time will tell. However, Russia already is starting to lose in one aspect, i.e. the number of people who have already received the vaccine. If Russia was the first to develop and use the vaccine at least five days before everyone else, it would only make sense that Russia has the most number of people vaccinated.

Let’s look at the numbers:3

1.     Russia begins vaccinations on 5 December

2.     The UK begins vaccinations on 8 December

3.     Canada begins vaccinations on 14 December

4.     The US begins vaccinations on 14 December

5.     China begins vaccinations on 19 December

6.     Israel begins vaccinations on 20 December

 The number of vaccinated people until 23 December:

1.     China ­– 1 million

2.     The US – 556,208

3.     The UK – 500,000

4.     Russia – 200,000

5.     Canada – 17,633

6.     Israel – 10,000

The situation in these countries on 4 January, from highest to lowest:

1.     China – 4.5 million

2.     The US – 4.23 million

3.     Israel – 1.09 million

4.     The UK – 944,539

5.     Russia – 800,000

6.     Canada – 112,246

It’s possible that the data isn’t renewed daily, but considering how active Russia was in telling everyone that it has developed a vaccine, it would surely use the opportunity to boast about the number of people successfully vaccinated. We can see that Russia is starting to seriously lag behind.

What do people in Russia say about the vaccination process? Of course, the following information cannot be found in state-controlled media outlets.

The so-called “mass vaccination” is Russia only concerns medical and social workers, teachers and those occupied in similar professions. However, in regions medical workers are certain that they won’t need the vaccine because by the new year the majority of them will have already recovered from Covid-19. On 18 December, it was announced that more than a thousand doses of the vaccine have been delivered to 40 Russia’s federal subjects, 27 subjects have received at least 500 doses and there is no information that the remaining 18 subjects would have received more than 500 doses. For instance, when vaccination began in Kirov Oblast they had a total of only 200 vaccines. Two days later, they received an additional 700 doses but the target group for which the vaccine was intended was 1,000 people. What concerns the vaccine itself, it must be stored in -18 C and a single vial of the vaccine contains five doses that have to be used in two hours – the unused doses must be destroyed.4

As I already said, it looks like Russia is unable to produce the required number of vaccines for its citizens. This means that Russia’s promise to provide its vaccine to other countries may not be fulfilled. I’m not only talking about indications because this is also confirmed by facts – Monday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that Hungary will most likely not use Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine because of the limited production capacity. “In comparison to Sputnik V, the Chinese vaccine looks more promising. It seems it will be available faster and in greater amounts,” said Orban.

And this is why I couldn’t contain my smile when I read an article in Russian media titled “Estonia names requirements for using Sputnik V6. The headline already attempts to create the impression that Estonia is eagerly waiting to use the Russian vaccine. However, the article states that Estonia will allow using the Sputnik V vaccine if it gets registered by the EU. What a surprise!

Those of you familiar with EU law know that if the EU allows the use of something it concerns every single EU member state. Therefore, the article is essentially saying that those who have purchased a ticket for the flight will be able to fly. So, what is the purpose of this article? The answer is simple – to create the illusion to the Russian people that the entire world is holding its breath and waiting for Russia to provide its Sputnik V vaccine.

Maybe the world is indeed waiting, but what difference does that make when Russia does not have enough vaccines for its own people. If we compare Russia’s situation with the situation in the countries that developed the vaccine later, it is evident that Russia is doing the worst. Yes, it was the first to announce the successful development of a vaccine and the first to begin vaccinating its people, but now Russia is in the last place.

When the US and China will have long completed the vaccination of its people, Russia will continue boasting that it was the first to develop the vaccine.

What do Russia’s official media outlets say about the vaccines developed by other countries? If you guessed “nothing good”, you are correct.

“Vaccine of disagreements: why doesn’t the West trust its own corporations”7. An excellent headline, don’t you think? The article mainly looks at anti-vaccination demonstrations that took place in several countries (of course, because people in Russia are prohibited from protesting, and those who try will be quickly dealt with). Since no one is protesting in Russia, it means that the people trust the vaccine. One of the main arguments for the lack of trust in the West is the fact that in Russia the vaccine is developed by a state company, as opposed to private companies in the West (if everyone in Russia trusts their healthcare system so much, why is the ruling elite always seeking treatment in the West?) The article then looks at all scandals involving the developers of the vaccine. If there are no scandals, the article states that the said company doesn’t even have a history of activity.

Taking all of this into account, it is evident that the situation with vaccines in Russia is far from being great.

Each country has its distinct characteristics, and for Russia this characteristic is boasting. Sometimes it’s just boasting and nothing else, but often it’s boasting and bluffing. Those who have served in the Soviet army know the meaning and importance of empty spectacles – the goal is to pretend to be better than you are. And in order to be seen as being better than it actually is, Russia is willing to bluff and belittle others.

Therefore, when I saw an article stating that Russia is developing a new laser weapon, I grinned from ear to ear – here we go again with the boasting. It is quite possible that Russia’s intellectual potential is sufficient to develop a prototype of sorts, but it’s highly unlikely that Russia would be able to mass produce this weapon. If Russia lacks resources to produce the vaccine it has itself developed in order to save the lives of its people, how could it have resources for something else?

Let’s take a brief look at history to find out more about Sputnik – the pompous namesake of Russia’s vaccine. Sputnik-1 (Russian: спутник – satellite), also known as Elementary Satellite 1 (Russian: Простейший Спутник-1) was the first artificial Earth satellite. It was launched on 4 October 1957 using a slightly modified version of the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. The launch of the satellite marked the beginning of the “space era”.Some of you may have noticed that the satellite was launched using a ballistic missile. You may think that the USSR had many ballistic missiles, therefore it was able to donate one of the missiles for space exploration. In reality, at that time Russia had only three such missiles left from a total of six. The other three missiles underwent testing where it was concluded that the missiles burn in the last stage of their trajectory. Consequently, it was concluded that at that point the carrier missiles couldn’t be used for their true purpose. Yes, you can launch the missile, but it won’t reach its target. At that time, the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution was approaching, so the Soviets thought it was a good idea to launch an Earth satellite to commemorate the event. From this, we can conclude that Sputnik was launched only because the missiles Russia was trying to develop couldn’t be used as they were intended. Yes, it’s a fact that the USSR was the first state to launch a satellite, but this remained its only achievement in space.

I truly hope that at least for now the vaccine has been developed to serve its true purpose – for the sake of Russian citizens.

Zintis Znotins

Zintis Znotins

Zintis Znotiņš is a freelance independent investigative journalist. He has studied politics and journalism at the Latvian University.

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