There was no clearer way of signaling how Russia sees its coronavirus vaccine: Moscow named it Sputnik, after the satellite whose launch in 1957 marked the start of the space race, and forced the West to confront an unexpected, and terrifying, technology gap.
Announcing the world’s first regulatory approval this week, President Vladimir Putin sought to repeat the propaganda masterstroke. Yet the rushed endorsement, after just two months of small-scale human testing, is less an affirmation of Russian scientific prowess than it is an expression of Putin’s hankering for Soviet-era international clout. It’s a premature victory lap that suggests a worrying need for affirmation at home too.
Russia has been in a hurry to win the vaccine race from the start, spotting the political benefit of being first with the inoculation the world is waiting for. It said in July that one of its prototypes, developed by the Gamaleya Institute, had completed the initial phase of tests. Then it began talking up plans for a mass vaccination program in the fall, brushing aside accusations that Moscow-backed hackers tried to steal research abroad. My colleagues in Moscow reported officials and billionaire tycoons had been getting the shots since April.
Now, ignoring public objections from the trade body representing the world’s top pharmaceutical companies in Russia, the country has pressed ahead with an official green light — even before the gold-standard, phase 3 trial that would typically involve thousands of subjects. Sweeping aside standard research procedure, Putin said in a televised meeting that all necessary checks had been cleared. It’s a triumph of spin over scientific protocol that even U.S. President Donald Trump hasn’t been able to pull off.
The scale of the gamble makes it hard to comprehend, even in a country that has counted more than 900,000 cases of the pneumonia-like illness. With only early-stage tests, as my colleague Max Nisen pointed out, Russia is taking a huge bet on the vaccine actually protecting enough people, safely. While adverse effects from vaccines are rare, they are not unheard of. Corner-cutting will hardly reassure a skeptical population.
There is also the fact that a national regulator’s OK doesn’t win you the global vaccine race. According to the World Health Organization, several candidate vaccines are already ahead of Russia’s in the final phase of testing, including one developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc, which uses a similar technology. Some, unlike Russia, have published data to support their claims.
So why bother?
First, for the glory. Even if this announcement has been met with widespread skepticism, the White House felt the need to reassure U.S. citizens that it was moving as fast as possible. Developing nations, meanwhile, are listening carefully to a country that might share its vaccine with them.
Then, for the research kudos. Putin wants to restore a reputation for scientific excellence that has been tarnished by years of underinvestment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a dramatic brain drain.
Most importantly, perhaps, this is about burnishing goodwill at home.
The rush in the laboratory is proportionate to Putin’s need for affirmation in the face of weak approval ratings — at record lows, even after voters approved constitutional changes that give him the opportunity to stay in power until 2036. In today’s Russia, there is still a warm feeling around Soviet successes like the space program. That’s true even if many of those firsts were as much about the headlines as they were about genuine evolution. After former factory worker Valentina Tereshkova became the first female cosmonaut in 1963, it was another 19 years before another woman followed her into orbit.
Judy Twigg, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies Russian politics and health, points out that it is much like the virtual reality of Putin’s superweapons announcement in 2018, which promised invincible next-generation technology. It was made against the backdrop of genuine advances, but suggested a need for big wins the president could boast about — even if, like some of that military technology or a promised AIDS vaccine, they don't ever materialize.
Putin clearly wants a win against a virus that spoiled his 2020. The landmark constitutional plebiscite intended to cement his leadership was delayed by the pandemic, as was a Victory Parade marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, which few world leaders attended. An oil crisis hasn’t helped matters. While the economy is doing less badly than feared, households are still in pain, protests persist in the country’s Far East, Belarus is in revolt on his doorstep and there are potentially awkward elections for regional assemblies in September.
With a vaccine promise, he is again a protective father of the people: To make the point, Putin remarked publicly that one of his own, rarely spoken-of, daughters was inoculated.
Much will depend on what happens next, beginning with the promised publication of data on the vaccine in a major international journal. Russia has dismissed its doubters, but facts will be key to winning them over.
In the end, a historic space exploit may not have been the best metaphor to choose. These days Russia’s program faces setbacks, including competition from private companies such as billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Tripping up in the vaccine race will be costlier.
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