Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow has had something of a public relations problem in Europe.
European sanctions on Russia followed and relations between Moscow and Brussels deteriorated as Vladimir Putin flexed his political muscles in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, cosying up to leaders such as Serbia’s Aleksander Vucic and Hungary’s Victor Orban.
Given the bad blood, it is no surprise that the race to first find a COVID-19 vaccine and then distribute and administer it has fed into the narrative. As the EU has struggled to make available European-manufactured vaccines, Russia has already sent its Sputnik V to Hungary and Slovakia and offered to supply 50 million more doses to Europe.
On 9 March, it announced that Sputnik V will be produced in Italy from July at the factories of the Italian-Swiss pharmaceutical company Adienne in Lombardy.
Ten million doses will be produced between July 1 and January 1, 2022, the firm confirmed, in addition to millions being made by firms in South Korea, Brazil and India.
Despite the progress, most European nations will not purchase Russia’s vaccine as it has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Last week the EMA announced that it would begin a rolling review of Sputnik V but just days later its head, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, told Austrian media that using it was “comparable to Russian roulette”.
The EMA has not responded to questions about Wirthumer-Hoche’s comments by Euronews.
Meanwhile, a report in The Lancet, a British medical journal, found an efficacy rate of 91% against the virus, something that has been seized on by Russian media, which is openly calling Sputnik V the best COVID-19 vaccine in the world. On the Sputnik V official Twitter account, Moscow demanded an apology over Wirthumer-Hoche’s comments.
“Sputnik V is approved by 46 nations. EMA did not allow such statements about any other vaccine. Such comments are inappropriate and undermine the credibility of EMA and its review process. Vaccines and EMA should be above and beyond politics,” it said.
It isn’t the first time that Russia’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic has been criticised in Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Russia was offering millions of doses worldwide while “not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating its own people.”
Indeed, while millions of doses of Sputnik V been delivered to countries from Laos to Argentina to Serbia - and many millions more promised - use at home has been far more muted.
As of 17 March, just 5.5 million people had received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, amounting to 3.8% of the population. A recent opinion poll found just 30% of Russian are willing to be vaccinated.
That is only a little better than France, which has vaccinated just over 7.5 million people out of a population of over 60 million and has been criticised for its response to the crisis.
Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which markets the virus abroad, told Euronews that there were sufficient stores of the vaccine in Russia and that the quantities donated or sold abroad were manufactured outside of the country.
But AP reported that manufacturers in South Korea and India, due to produce 150 million and 100 million doses respectively of the vaccine, may not have started production as of March 2021. In Brazil, production is still in the pilot testing phase and in Italy, it has yet to begin.
In Russia, just over two million doses were made in 2020 even as reports surfaced of local producers having issues buying equipment. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on February 20 that over ten million doses of Sputnik V have been produced.
Critics also maintain that while much has been promised by Moscow, a lot remains to be delivered or approved. India, Nepal and Brazil - set to receive 125 million, 10 million and 25 million doses respectively - are yet to have the vaccine approved by regulators.
Argentina received 2.5 million doses by March 1 but was expecting five million to arrive in January and 14 million in February. Hungary was expecting to receive two million doses and has so far received 325,600, according to numbers shared with Euronews by the Hungarian government. By contrast, Budapest has received 550,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund did not respond to questions about the shortfall submitted by Euronews.
Like China and Israel, Russia has been accused of basing its distribution deals on diplomatic aims and national self-interest, stepping in for those EU member states that are within its orbit - like Hungary - at a time when the EU’s own vaccine distribution measures are faltering.
But speaking to Euronews, Dmitriev said that such political considerations were irrelevant.
“We believe that [...] vaccines should be outside politics, and if you look closely at who makes such comments, about some kind of Russian policy, these are people who purposefully do not like Russia and publicly speak out about his dislike for Russia,” he said.
“This dislike for Russia prevents them from seeing the objective picture, and the objective picture is that Russia, like other countries, has managed to create a very effective high-quality vaccine and it certainly offers it to those who want it.”
But critics say that if Moscow had truly wanted to help the global push towards vaccination, it could have supported the COVAX initiative rather than sending Sputnik V to individual states unilaterally.
It is a failure, Michael Jennings, a reader in international development at SOAS University of London, told Euronews that the nations of the global north share.
“If countries are truly committed to taking politics out of it, they will - soon and at scale - start to provide supplies through Covax, where allocation can be determined by need, not donor self-interest,” he said.