Europe and Russia: Vaccine Competition or Political Confrontation?

Press-kit photo from official Sputnik-V website.

April 06 2021 – Nikolay N. Goryachev

This article was written exclusively for Council on Pacific Affairs (and peoples of Pacific) and has not been published before.

Despite all the international community efforts, the coronavirus pandemic is not losing ground. A year ago, we were in confusion and fear, not knowing what to expect in the future. However, now humanity already knows how to treat this virus, and how to resist it with vaccines. Only vaccination will allow all of us return to normal daily life. Probably almost the same one as before the pandemic.

However, now the vaccine issue has become more political than humanitarian one. We can see that some politicians think the vaccine literally has nationality. A year ago, we heard that the virus, allegedly, had a nationality. However, this is not the case – they both had no nationality. They were and they are supranational – and this is the problem. We can see how issues of ethics, concern for the health and well-being of the nation are deliberately ignored by some world leaders. Moreover, that is done in favor of an imaginary set of geopolitical and political points.

At the end of March, several events related to so-called vaccine diplomacy took place at once: Russian President V. Putin began his vaccination against coronavirus, the situation with the AstraZeneca vaccine became even more confusing (and vaccine renamed). French President E. Macron said on 25th of March that what was happening in the world was not nothing more than a vaccine war. It is known that what is happening with vaccines that came from the East – namely, Russian and Chinese, evokes different feelings throughout the world. Someone welcomes their appearance, someone fears possible negative consequences, and someone sees this as an exclusively political project, while others ask quite fair questions. For example, why Russia offers its vaccine to other states, while the rate of vaccination in the country is not very high? Why information about the side effects of the Russian vaccine is allegedly hidden? Such questions are stirring up the public all over the world day after day.

The author considered it possible to present his views on the problem of world vaccination, and to inform the peoples of the Pacific about his own experience of vaccination with Sputnik-V with an open mind from the point of view of an ordinary citizen of the Russian Federation.

From the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been clear that invention of a vaccine is just a matter of time. And this process began almost immediately with the onset of the pandemic – in March 2020, several dozen research centers and pharmaceutical companies started working on it. However, vaccine development is not a quick process. As a result, the first vaccine released into civilian circulation appeared in August 2020. It was Sputnik-V. Almost immediately after the announcement of the vaccine registration, a flurry of criticism fell upon the developers. On the one hand, this criticism was justified, since the data on the trials were presented in a hurry and were not transparent enough. That did not allow specialists to fairly assess pro et contra of the first Russian vaccine. By February 2021, this deficiency was eliminated, and an extensive article by the vaccine developers and comments on it by leading experts was published in the world-renowned medical journal «Lancet». On the other hand, there is a long time interval for five months between the registration of a vaccine for use and publication of the test results, and that left a wide field for political speculation and critical statements both to the vaccine developers and to Russia.

In the EU countries, which are now experiencing great difficulties with vaccination of the population, from the very beginning there was a certain skepticism regarding the Russian vaccine. EU politicians and medics pinned great hopes on the massive use of vaccines from Western concerns. However, it is now clear that the magic did not happen and vaccination will not be taking place as quickly as expected. Moreover, against the background of this, two phenomena have emerged that threaten not only the EU, but possibly can spread to the whole world: «vaccine separatism» and «vaccine nationalism».

Many observers were surprised by the decision of the leadership of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (EU member states) to independently negotiate and purchase Sputnik-V from Russia, bypassing the approval of the competent authorities of the European Commission. On the one hand, the leadership of these countries acted in accordance with, probably, the main principle that any national leader should be guided by – the principle of caring and protecting their citizens. On the other hand, such a clear demarche against EU norms and rules gave many reasons to doubt both the unity of the EU and its values, and that the purchase of vaccines in Russia was on a voluntary basis. In Russia, this was presented to public as a Russian science victory. The political circles of Slovakia were ready to raise the question of returning the vaccine to Russia (and they were ready to accept this return). By themselves, the negotiations on Sputnik-V are essentially taking place after the complete breach of bilateral relations between Russia and the EU as the political institution. Nevertheless, even this does not stop some countries from openly Russophobic statements – for example, Lithuania’s recent statement: «No recognition of Russian vaccine on travel certificates». Curious, what do the workers of the tourism industry in Greece, Spain and other European countries popular with Russian tourists think about these words? It is possible that the «ideal truly democratic state of the West» (and Russia, according to the general opinion of Western countries, is not a democracy at all), finding itself in such conditions, would simply stop distributing its vaccine – purely for political reasons. At least for reasons of simple human offense.

Now the situation around Russian vaccines remains at an impasse. European Commissioner Thierry Breton, who leads the EU’s vaccine task force, said that the EU «absolutely does not need» more vaccines from outside the alliance, despite the slow pace of vaccinations and the difficulties Brussels is facing. Breton reiterated his comment on the Russian vaccine, saying it would be another year after its approval before the EU could introduce the Russian vaccine. He said: “I have a lot of respect for Russian scientists, and I have no reason to doubt their vaccine.” “But my job as European Commissioner is to ensure there are enough vaccines.” “And we cannot interfere with the manufacturing processes of our own companies, which are focused on producing existing vaccines in the coming months.” It is clear that this is probably a manifestation of vaccine nationalism – your manufacturer is always closer and more understandable. But in Europe there is still no variety of domestic vaccines, and how long this situation will last is still difficult to guess. However, it is obvious that the leaders of the EU countries are in a “political grip”. The Prime Minister of Slovakia was forced to resign because he showed concern for his people. The leaders of France and Germany met with the President of Russia, and discussed, among other things, the supply of vaccines. At the same time, European travel companies are already offering “vaccine tours” to Russia, and there are requests to facilitate entry for foreigners in order to be vaccinated with «Sputnik V». One gets the impression that the European Union does not need the Russian vaccine, but the citizens of Europe do.

In addition, in all this, many questions arise regarding the fact that in Russia itself, vaccination is not proceeding as quickly as expected. Moreover, everyone is wondering – how does Russia sell vaccines to other countries, but is unable to provide them for itself? The point here is that the vaccine that exported is not produced in Russia, but under a contract with pharmaceutical companies in other countries. And the population of Russia is vaccinated at the expense of the capacities that exist in the country. On the other hand, there are questions about the very rate of vaccination and about the side effects that arise from the use of vaccines. Here is the time to talk about personal experience.

The Far East of Russia, where the author of this essay lives, is the most remote part of the country from Moscow. Many initiatives from central regions come to us a bit late. The fact that mass vaccination of citizens is starting in the country, I, like other Russians, learned from the media after the president’s instructions on January 18, 2021. Already on January 21, the hospital in which I usually undergo treatment posted information that an appointment on vaccination was being made. I immediately called there, and they told me that the delivery time was unknown, but they would put me on the waiting list. And a week later, on a day off, they called me and asked if I was ready to receive the vaccine on February 1. I was surprised by the speed, I did not expect the injection before March 2021. And when I came to the hospital, as I was instructed, I noted an interesting fact – there was no excitement. The doctors called the enrollees to recruit the required five people for one package of vaccine. When I came to the second part of the vaccination, I found that the situation had changed – there were more applicants than the hospital could provide. But the pace is still low. Why? Because in Russia there is no obligation to be vaccinated for everyone. The obligation exists only for physicians, teachers and social workers working with vulnerable groups of population. However, for everyone else, this is a matter of personal choice; nobody has the right to force people to get vaccinated. At the same time, the vaccination process is fine-tuned at the digital level – every citizen of Russia who is registered on the government’s digital services portal can fill out an observation diary after vaccination, and receive both an electronic and a paper proof of vaccination with QR code. As a rule, doctors conduct an examination before vaccination, observation after the injection for an hour, and give recommendations on behavior after vaccination.

There are still many questions about vaccine side effects. Yes, they do exist, but can they be considered serious? The temperature after the injection once rose to 38C (this lasted one night), and two days after I felt unusually tired (like after a long run). After the second dose injection in three weeks, there was the same feeling of fatigue and a temperature of 37C the night after the injection – I’m not sure if this can be considered a side effect at all. Moreover, the situation is the same for those people who live next to me, from 18 to 70 years old – no one got serious complications. Of course, you may not believe what I have said and consider it a manifestation of propaganda. This is up to you.

Of course, getting vaccinated does not mean you are completely safe from COVID now. I still continue to put on a mask in public and obey to the other sanitary requirements. We can only hope that over time, most people will be vaccinated. In fact, it does not matter where the vaccine is made – what matters is its safety and protection it provides.


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