Many countries took up Russia’s offer to sell them its vaccine. But can it deliver?


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In recent months, the Kremlin has scored a sweeping diplomatic win from an unexpected source: the success of its coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V.

While the United States and European countries have considered or implemented bans on vaccine exports, Russia has earned plaudits by sharing its vaccine with countries around the world in an apparent act of enlightened self-interest.

So far, more than 50 countries from Latin America to Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of the Russian vaccine, buffing the image of Russian science and lifting Moscow’s influence around the world.

Yet in Russia things are not always what they seem, and this apparent triumph of soft-power diplomacy may not be all that the Kremlin would like the world to think. While Sputnik V is unquestionably effective, production is lagging, raising questions about whether Moscow may be promising far more vaccine exports than it can supply, and doing so at the expense of its own citizens.

The actual number of doses distributed within Russia is a state secret, said Dmitri Kulish, a professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Nevertheless, Russian officials are boasting of massive vaccine exports, and basking in the warm glow of the vaccine diplomacy that has generated.

“Soft power is the yawning, gaping hole in Russia’s global status,” Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy and a former American diplomat, said in a telephone interview. “If they play their cards right here, vaccines could be very important.”

European officials have started to push back on Russia’s aggressive marketing of Sputnik.

“We still wonder why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating its own people,” the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, told a news conference Wednesday. “This question should be answered.”

Only 2.2 million Russians (less than 2 percent) have received a first dose of the two-shot vaccine. In the United State, by contrast, 40.3 million people (around 12 percent) have received first injections, despite a rocky rollout.

The reason for that lack of public acceptance, analysts say, is that many Russians are so distrustful of their own government that they dismiss clinical trials that have shown Sputnik V to be safe and highly effective. In a poll taken last fall, 59 percent of Russians said they did not intend to be vaccinated.

So deep is the distrust that fully stocked vaccination sites in Moscow are frequently empty. The fears haven’t been helped by the example of President Vladimir V. Putin, who has yet to take the vaccine himself.


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