Putin's once-scorned Sputnik V is now a favourite in the fight against Covid-19

At least 19 countries have approved the inoculation for use. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - President Vladimir Putin's announcement last August that Russia had cleared the world's first Covid-19 vaccine for use before it even completed safety trials sparked scepticism worldwide.

Now he may reap diplomatic dividends as Russia basks in arguably its biggest scientific breakthrough since the Soviet era.

Countries are lining up for supplies of Sputnik V after peer-reviewed results published in The Lancet medical journal this week showed the Russian vaccine protects against the deadly virus about as well as the United States and European shots, and far more effectively than Chinese rivals.

At least 19 countries have approved the inoculation for use, including European Union member state Hungary, while key markets such as Brazil and India are close to authorising it.

Now Russia is setting its sights on the prized EU market as the bloc struggles with its vaccination programme amid supply shortages.

In the global battle to defeat a pandemic that has claimed 2.3 million lives in little more than a year, the race to obtain vaccines has assumed geopolitical significance as governments seek to emerge from the huge social and economic damage caused by lockdowns imposed to limit the spread of the virus. That has given Russia an edge as one of a handful of countries where scientists have produced an effective defence.

Its decision to name Sputnik V after the world's first satellite whose 1957 launch gave the Soviet Union a stunning triumph against the US to start the space race only underlined the scale of the significance Moscow attached to the achievement.

Results from the late-stage trials of 20,000 participants reviewed in The Lancet showed that the vaccine has a 91.6 per cent success rate.

"This is a watershed moment for us," Mr Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, which backed Sputnik V's development and is in charge of its international roll-out, said in an interview.

While it is too early to gauge the political gains for Putin, Russia is already making much of the soft-power impact of the vaccine on its image after years of international condemnation over election meddling and targeting of political opponents at home and abroad. State television reports extensively on deliveries to other nations.

Sputnik's success will not change hostility towards Mr Putin among Western governments, though it could strengthen Russia's geopolitical clout in regions such as Latin America, according to Ms Oksana Antonenko, a director at Control Risks consultancy.

"With this vaccine, it's proven itself capable of producing something new that's in demand around the world," she said. Production constraints are the biggest challenge facing all manufacturers as global demand far outpaces supply.

Russia, pledging free shots for its 146 million population, began output last year and the vaccine is currently being manufactured in countries including India, South Korea and Brazil.

This week, it emerged a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement to produce Sputnik V in Turkey, even as the nation has deals to buy 50 million doses of China's Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac vaccine and 4.5 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech shot.

Despite Russia's success, domestic demand remains lukewarm so far, driven by public suspicion of the authorities.

Mr Putin, 68, fuelled the scepticism last December when he said he was waiting to get the inoculation until it had been cleared for people his age. He still has not said whether he has been vaccinated, but other nations are not waiting to find out.

The day after announcing he had contracted Covid-19, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Jan 25 said he had thanked a "genuinely affectionate" Mr Putin for pledging 24 million doses of Sputnik V in the coming two months.

Three days later, Bolivian President Luis Arce personally took delivery of a batch at La Paz airport.

Latin America is proving fertile territory. Argentina, which has struggled to obtain vaccine supplies, started its mass inoculation programme after taking delivery of more than half a million Sputnik V doses by January. It has been joined by Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela.

In Brazil, the region's biggest market, a decision announced Feb 3 to scrap the requirement for phase three trials for emergency use may speed up approval.

Guinea became the first African nation to start dispensing Sputnik V in December with Moscow-friendly President Alpha Conde and several ministers taking the vaccine. It expects to get 1.6 million doses this year and is also in talks on acquiring Chinese vaccines, along with AstraZeneca's shot.

Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast are among other potential customers for Russia.

"We're not in a position where we can say no to any vaccine. We've opted for the Pfizer vaccine, but we're looking at other vaccines as well," said Professor Joseph Benie, head of the National Institute of Public Hygiene in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. "There's an urgency now to start inoculating."

Unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Sputnik V can be stored in a fridge rather than a freezer, making it easier to transport and distribute in poorer and hotter countries.

At around US$20 (S$26.70) for a two-shot vaccination, it is also cheaper than most Western alternatives. While more expensive than AstraZeneca, the Russian inoculation has shown higher efficacy than the British vaccine.

For some nations such as Iran, which received the first batch of a promised 2 million doses this week, Russia offers a more palatable political alternative than Western suppliers. But Russia is also making inroads into countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which is traditionally close to the US and has approved Sputnik V for use.

China, whose inoculations are as low as 50 per cent effective in the case of Sinovac Biotech, retains a lead in Asia. Only a handful of countries have opted for Sputnik V, including the Philippines, which is in talks for 25 million doses. Chinese developers may now team up with Russia.

The RDIF struck a preliminary deal to test a combined regimen of shots from Sputnik V and China's CanSino Biologics to boost effectiveness against Covid-19, people with knowledge of the matter said Friday.

In what could represent the Kremlin's biggest potential breakthrough, European regulators are starting to examine a request for authorisation of Sputnik V after Germany promised to help expedite the process.

With top EU officials still smarting over a sluggish vaccine roll-out, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday the Russian shot could be used to protect people in the 27-member bloc as long as it was approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Hungary has already granted emergency approval, signing a deal for 2 million doses of Sputnik V with the first 40,000 shots delivered on Tuesday.

"The vaccine cannot be a political question," Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state radio Jan 29. "One can only choose between Western and Eastern vaccines when you have enough."

European approval may take several months because of the need to submit detailed data, The Lancet's editor-in-chief Richard Horton told Bloomberg's QuickTake. "I do think this Russian vaccine will come on tap," but "not quickly," he said.

While Russia says it expects the vaccine to be available to 700 million people this year, it is facing production bottlenecks. "We have to be realistic. Given our other commitments, we will not be able to supply to Europe before May, other than Hungary," said RDIF's Dmitriev.

Still, the vaccine is paying dividends for Mr Putin. Even as he visited Moscow on Friday to confront Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell took time to congratulate Russia on developing Sputnik V.

"It's good news for the whole mankind," Mr Borrell said. "It means that we are going to have more tools to face the pandemic."

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