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March 7, 2021, 11:10 a.m. EST

Vaccine diplomacy: Putin seeks to leverage Sputnik V to build Russia’s global influence

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Judging by production and exports so far, “Russia is very far from being able to deliver this,” said Airfinity CEO and founder Rasmus Hansen.

Russia manufactured just over 2 million doses last year amid reports of local producers having problems with buying equipment and making the second component of the two-shot vaccine.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Feb. 20 that over 10 million doses of Sputnik V have been produced.

Sputnik V is a viral vector vaccine, which uses a harmless virus that carries genetic material to stimulate the immune system. Producing it is a complicated process, said Elena Subbotina, a consultant with the pharma consultancy CBPartners’ Central and Eastern Europe Team. Producers can’t guarantee stable output because working with biological ingredients involves a lot of variability in terms of the quality of the finished product.

Some countries that have been offered large batches of Sputnik V have yet to approve it for use.

In India, which has been pledged 125 million doses, the vaccine is undergoing studies to determine if it produces a comparable immune response. Brazil’s health ministry said it is negotiating to purchase 10 million doses, but the nation’s regulatory agency has yet to authorize its use. Nepal, which has been offered 25 million doses, also hasn’t given its approval.

Other countries have had delays in receiving Sputnik V shipments.Argentina got nearly 2.5 million doses by March 1, even though at one point the government was expecting 5 million in January and over 14 million more in February. Officials in Hungary, who agreed to buy 2 million doses over three months, said Jan. 22 they were expecting 600,000 doses in the first 30 days, but got only 325,600 by early March. Mexico signed a deal for 24 million doses and was hoping to receive 400,000 in February but got only 200,000.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund has agreements with manufacturers in countries including Brazil, South Korea and India to boost production, but there are few indications that manufacturers abroad have made any large amounts of the vaccine so far.

The Brazilian company Uniao Quimica is in the pilot testing phase, the results of which will be shared with Russia before the company can produce it for sale. Indian drugmaker Hetero Biopharma, with a deal to make 100 million doses, was to begin production at the start of 2021, but it isn’t clear if it has actually started.

South Korean company GL Rapha, which expects to make 150 million doses this year, will be manufacturing finished products by sometime in March, said company official Kim Gi-young.

Russia so far hasn’t faced any criticism for delaying supplies of Sputnik V to other countries, with foreign officials optimistic about the deals.Hungary is still awaiting large shipments, but expressed optimism about receiving them.

“The Russian side, with minimal delay, will meet the 600,000 doses agreed to in the first phase, and then the additional 1.4 million doses,” Hungary’s State Secretary Tamas Menczer said last month. Prime Minister Viktor Orban added Friday: “The Russians are pretty much keeping their promises.”

Promising more than can be delivered appears to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and it is a real risk for Russia as well, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies.

“They have won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” she said. “But the problem is, how are they going to implement it?”

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