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What Role Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 Vaccine Will Play In Ending The Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A vaccine for all mankind - that is how Russia is describing its COVID-19 vaccine after a peer-reviewed article in The Lancet confirmed it is more than 90% effective. Now, you might recall controversy over this vaccine. It is called Sputnik V. Russia approved it for emergency use last August before large-scale clinical trials were underway, so their early claims of success were met with skepticism. Judy Twigg has been watching this vaccine closely. She is a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies global health and Russia.

Judy Twigg, welcome.

JUDY TWIGG: Thank you.

KELLY: So fair to say this is more good news, right? I saw an accompanying commentary in The Lancet that said, now we've got another vaccine that can join the fight.

TWIGG: This is definitely good news. Not only did The Lancet study confirm that the Sputnik vaccine is more than 90%, effective, but the data presented in The Lancet also indicate that the Sputnik vaccine, as is the case with Pfizer and Moderna, is 100% effective at preventing severe cases and death. This is certainly good news for Russia. With everything else that is going on in Russian politics right now with the Alexei Navalny verdict yesterday and the brutal crackdown on protesters, this is a good news alternate story that I'm sure Vladimir Putin is happy to have.

KELLY: I mentioned there had been controversy about this vaccine. There were jokes making the rounds about it. And I know that you wrote just a couple of weeks ago that Russia had damaged its credibility by rushing and approving it for emergency use before the data was out there. Does it matter if Russia rushed things or cut corners if the point is just, let's get as many vaccines as work as we can and vaccinate as many people as quickly as we can?

TWIGG: Well, from a scientific standpoint, it was correct for the international community to be skeptical of Russia's early claims of the vaccine that was ready to go. Now that we have the data in hand and now that we have the experience of several months' worth of large-scale administration of the vaccine, I think the question now turns not so much to the scientific validity of the vaccine, but to the political implications of taking a vaccine from Russia.

KELLY: Well - and Russia is already exporting doses of the Sputnik to other countries. Who's getting them?

TWIGG: Argentina got the first big shipment. And now there are dozens of countries that are getting shipments of the vaccine but more importantly are getting licensing and production deals with Russia so that those countries can make the vaccine on their own or buy it from other third-party producers like India. This is important because of what's been labeled the vaccine nationalism that's been practiced by the rich countries, by the United States and Western Europe, which have enormous pre-purchasing agreements for so much of the existing vaccine that it's leaving many of the poor and even some of the lower-middle-income and middle-income countries on the sidelines. This is a prime opportunity for countries like Russia and China, as well, to exercise some soft power, to gain some diplomatic advantage by moving into this vacuum that's been created by the lack of supply of some of the Western-generated vaccines.

KELLY: For Russia to gain some bragging rights, it sounds like - saying, hey, we're coming to the rescue of all these countries. Does that suggest that Russia believes it has enough to vaccinate all Russians if they're racing to export?

TWIGG: That's an excellent question, and it's a politically sensitive question inside Russia. Russia is being very careful to say that it will make sure its own people have been adequately vaccinated before it starts sending vaccine abroad. That's why most of the deals that we're seeing here involve licensing and production agreements rather than out and out donation or sale of the Sputnik vaccine to a third country.

KELLY: That is Judy Twigg. She is professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Thanks so much.

TWIGG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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