US-Russia had been entangling in conflict since the cold war era, the war to possess more power over the economy, resources, space, nuclear weapons, and the supreme leadership of world politics. The war, however, in 2020 has been more unique than ever since, because this time the politics of war is over vaccines. The ongoing pandemic COVID-19 has marked a pause button over the whole world, from politics to economics to social activities, everything is at a halt. The world is still trying hard to come out of this pandemic era with the invention of vaccines for the cure of the COVID-19. Russia is the first country that came with a vaccine for the coronavirus, since its inception in December 2019, in Wuhan, China. Nevertheless, coming with vaccination is not enough, there also has to be worldwide acceptance and transparency of the vaccine trails. On top of that the US, which is also in its Phase 3 trial of the vaccine, is agitated on how Russia has vanquished and being the first country to produce the COVID-19 vaccine. Therefore, there is a hovering fear regarding people’s health and life amidst the political game over the COVID-19 vaccine between the two former cold war nemeses, the United States of America and Russia is the biggest concern of the general public.
Is history repeating itself? Is the Cold War, space war back again? Even when it is not the space war, the name Sputnik vividly brings back the decade-old memory. The Soviet Union’s successful 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in 1957 set about the Cold War space war. Through this launch, the Soviet Union marked its triumph over the realm of technology and science, posing a challenging threat to its then sole nemesis, the United States. One after another Soviet Union kept launching satellites to space one after another. The product Russia launching in the name of Sputnik might have changed, but the sentiment remained the same. The belief that the Sputnik V vaccine will prove as successful as Sputnik 1 space satellite was. The metaphorical statement would be, as the satellite hovers above the space, the vaccine will hover around the world to destroy the deadly COVID-19 disease. There is a worldwide crisis going as a form of the pandemic which is caused by the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which was initiated in Wuhan, China and since then this deadly virus has taken many lives. At present, according to worldometer, there are more than 3 million coronavirus cases with more than 1 million deaths all over the world. The prime goal of most of the developed countries is now to invent a vaccine and cure for the COVID-19. It would be wrong not to predict a political race between the USA and Russia when both the countries objectives are common, firstly, to be the first one to invent a vaccine for the virus. Secondly, to use the COVID-19 vaccine as a shield to gain back national pride, peoples trust, and recovering the fallen economy. In contrast to that, if solely the US interest is considered, the game seems a bit more twisted. This is because of the ambiguity of how the US will play its political card, entangling with Russia or with its own people in order to win over the 2020 presidential election. The worldwide concern amidst all these vaccine political games still revolves around people’s health and life.
The launch of Sputnik V against the critical claims of the US
Sputnik V had marked a triumph for Vladamir Putin on the 12th of August, 2020. The ascendency of Russia, which is the first country to be able to produce the world’s first coronavirus vaccine. Vladamir Putin reaffirmed the fidelity of the effectiveness of the vaccine by referring to the example of one of his daughters, who had already been treated with the vaccine. The vaccine has been developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow and the Ministry of Health has also issued a certificate claiming that the vaccine would now be applicable to only a few numbers of selected people, but it could be widely used from January 2021 after all the clinical trials. Funding from the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) has been used in order to produce Sputnik. The Russian registration certificate gives few details about the vaccine, which is being manufactured by Binnopharm in Zelenograd. The company says it can produce 1.5 million doses of the product per year and hopes to expand its manufacturing capacity. Although the trials of the vaccine are yet to be made public, there are claims according to the Russian health ministry that the vaccine is expected to provide immunity from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, for up to two years. But the results of the limited trials have yet to be made public. Russia further planned that it will start mass-producing the vaccine from September and mass vaccination of its citizens from October. Moreover, many countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia are interested to get through trials of the vaccine. To begin with, the president of the Philippines RodrigoDuterte has publicly expressed his enthusiasm for the vaccine and claimed that he is willing to volunteer in further trials. Similarly, a Brazilian technology institute, after the state of Parana signed a memorandum of understanding with Moscow, declared that it expects to produce the vaccine by the second half of 2021. On the other hand, the Russian vaccine is unlikely to meet approval regulations for European Union countries and in the US, the vaccine will need the FDA’s approval. For instance, Duncan Matthews, Professor of IP Law at the Queen Mary University of London claimed that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have fast-track approval procedures for emergency humanitarian use and they demand to see the evidence that Russia is adopting an equally practical and efficient approach.
Given the high attributes of producing the first coronavirus vaccine by Russia, western countries do not seem to be agreeing with the effectiveness and safety of it. For instance, senior associates like Judy Twigg, who teaches Russian politics and global public health at the Virginia Commonwealth University, is claiming that this is a chance for Russia to come out as a savior in this precarious time with a touted vaccine for treating the coronavirus. Like all other countries amid the coronavirus shutdown, the Russian economy has also befallen appallingly. Thus, in order to preserve national pride, it has become a national issue for Putin, who does not want to get indulge in any public discontent or criticism. Moreover, the United States and other western countries are accusing Russia that they have announced the vaccine even before its Phase 3 stage tests and approval. Although Russia denied this accusation and claimed that the Phase 3 stage tests have already begun in Russia, Middle Eastern, and several Latin American countries. In contrary to the Russian claim, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), argued that the number of people the vaccine is being claimed had been tested on so far was the equivalent of a Phase 1 trial, which typically involves a small group and studies the safety of the vaccine. Obscureness has cast a shadow over the reality of the safety of the Russian vaccine. This is because Russia has not provided any scientific data on its vaccine testing, but repeatedly claiming that the vaccine has passed the Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials. Amidst all the ambiguousness about the safety and efficiency of the vaccine, there has been a further question raised about how Russia could come up with a COVID-19 vaccine so fast compared to other countries also working on the vaccine. The answer to this, or as opposed by many western countries is that in April, Russia has enacted a law that eliminates the need for Phase 3 trials prior to approval. The more crucial turn to this rivalry took place when Washington has imposed sanctions against those Russian researchers and specialists who are working on the development of a vaccine to fight the coronavirus. The American authorities claim they sanctioned Central Research Institute No. 33 because it is allegedly involved in a Russian chemical program and a chemical weapons testing facility. In addition to that, the US has also blacklisted Central Research Institute No. 48 for allegedly being part of the Russian biological weapons program. Opposing to the accusation, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued that the sanctions imposed pose nothing but the US competition and rivalry against Russia. She further added that the accusations are baseless and not backed by any evidence. Thus, it is merely, the insecurity of the US spiked up by Russia’s success in launching the first COVID-19 vaccine in the world.
However, not only US scientists or doctors have criticized the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Russia, but also several Russian scientists have serious doubts about the development and transparency regarding Sputnik V. One such person is Svetlana Zavidova, a lawyer and who the head of the Association of Clinical Research Organizations in Russia, has ridiculed the certification of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. Zavidova further quoted, “I feel only shame for our country.”
She appealed to the Ministry of Health in postponing the registration of the certificate and claimed that this race in vaccine development would only welcome unnecessary dangers.
Is it the US-Russia vaccine politics or the US election politics?
Often, when there is a rivalry between opponents, one action of an opponent immediately spikes a threat to the other. The same scenario is about to be witnessed in the United States, given the launch of the world’s first coronavirus vaccine by Russia. American scientists are now hoping that Donald Trump, after the launch of Sputnik V, would not hastily get into the race for launching its own COVID-19 vaccine before it has been fully tested. For instance, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who is a Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Barack Obama claimed that Trump, after the launch of the Russian vaccine might push U.S. R&D and F.D.A. to move more quickly. Furthermore, the concern has also been raised amongst the other American scientists that in the conquest of geopolitical rivalry, Trump might also act prematurely like Russia in embracing ineffective and unsafe means of combating the virus. In the light of the Presidential election this year, another thing can be pointed out as how the coronavirus vaccine has become the core element of the 2020 presidential election campaign. Given that Donald Trump is repeatedly touting about Operation Wrap Speed, which is a public-private partnership aims at accelerating the control of the Covid-19 pandemic by advancing the development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Moreover, it seems like Trump is relying on the COVID-19 vaccine in order to win over the election, furthermore, he thinks that a vaccine would improve his electoral prospects. Thus, he has been leaning on regulators like the Food and Drug Administration to approve a vaccine on this timeline. However, the scientists and doctors working on the vaccine seem more skeptical and claiming that the launch of the vaccine finishing all tests and trials might not be complete until next year. For instance, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is a director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated though not impossible but it might be unlikely that a vaccine’s efficacy be ensured prior to the Election Day on November 3. Similarly, StéphaneBancel, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Moderna claimed that although vaccines are in the Phase 3 trial, still it would not be ready for widespread distribution until next spring. Additionally, it could also be stated that not only the scientists who think the hasty launch of a COVID-19 vaccine would not be effective and safe but also the general American people are highly suspicious of this impetuous move of Trump. The general public is more concerned about their health now, given the fact of how the vaccine has become a hyperbole of the presidential election campaign. The results of this have been clearly reflected through a CNN poll on the American people, showing how the percentage of Americans who are willing to get injected by the vaccine are declining. The table below illustrates the falling percentage of Americans willing to get the coronavirus vaccine from May till October 2020.
|Percentage of Americans willing to get the vaccine||66%||56%||51%|
Even though the scientists are showing a negative concern over the hasty launching of the COVID-19 vaccine prior to Election Day, Donald Trump and the government officials tend to reflect a different tone. It seems like Trump is more likely to imitate Putin’s way of launching the vaccine fast in order to win the 2020 presidential election at home. The aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, has set the stage for oppositions within the government official of the US. This is because according to the intelligence agencies, there had been great roles played by Russia, in order to make Trump win the election, however, trump rejected this accusation calling all these a hoax. Given that within the two government official groups in the US, where one group believes in cooperation and mutual relation between Washington and Moscow in order to fight global complexities like coronavirus. The other group, however, tends to claim that the Putin regime poses a threat to American interests and values. Although, despite taking strict actions against Russia over the presidential tenure of the Trump administration, it still seems Mr. Trump would rather believe in Russia’s Putin, rather than his own intelligence. For instance, bolstering the case of John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser. Thus, this ambiguous behavior of Trump makes it really difficult to understand the true motives of Trump at certain times.
The coronavirus infected cases are undoubtedly on the rise with every passing day, thus, there is a verging need for a vaccine for this deadly virus. However, this fast need for launching the COVID-19 vaccine has somewhat turned into a political race, where each country is gambling the vaccine in order to play its political card. Russia is believed to have initiated the game by being the first country to launch its Sputnik V vaccine without even finishing the Phase 3 trial. The race to win over its dying economy and national pride. In contrary to this, there is obscureness over the cards the US is playing. At one point it seems like in order to tame and compete against Russia, the US is pointing out the lack of scientific transparency of the Russian vaccine. Whereas, on another note, it is more like the US itself is playing its own political game, where Donald Trump is merely using the COVID-19 vaccine as a shield to win over the 2020 presidential election. The fear, however, is that other countries which are also on their trial phases of the COVID-19 vaccine production might also engage in this geopolitical vaccine game, leaving the lives of general people all over the world at risk.
Farhat Zaman Research Enthusiast Former Research Assistant, Transparency International Bangladesh Masters Graduate, Department of International Relations, Bangladesh University of Professionals.