Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with university students marking Russian Students' Day via video conference in Zavidovo, 150 km (90 miles) north of Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with university students marking Russian Students' Day via video conference in Zavidovo, 150 km (90 miles) north of Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russia Has a Vaccine. The World Has Questions

Despite a promising clinical trial, Moscow’s record suggests a wait-and-see approach to a vaccine that the Russian military is already pumping into troops’ arms.

Today’s vaccine news out of Russia presents a soft-power win for Vladimir Putin and a tricky challenge for Western governments: how to celebrate the arrival of another COVID-19 vaccine without normalizing shortcut methods or, just possibly, intellectual property theft?

On Tuesday, The Lancet, a leading British science journal, published a peer-reviewed article showing that the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia’s Gamaleya Institute was above 90 percent effective in stopping the virus in a phase 3 clinical trial. This is comparable to the Moderna vaccine, which is 94 percent effective, and better than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is 74 percent effective. 

But is Sputnik V really so effective? That assumes that the data that the Russian authors submitted to The Lancet’s review committee is accurate. That’s not a certainty when it comes to Russia, which is known for doping its athletes. All the data from the study was collected in Russia, but that, by itself, doesn’t mean it’s been faked. Participants in the trial also contributed to a log where they described their experiences. Here, too, there is no evidence to suggest that the testimonials are fake, but Russian authorities don’t take kindly to dissenting opinions

“Even if the vaccine appears to be performing well, Russia’s lengthy track record of misreporting and lack of transparency still means we should treat their numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism,” said Ivana Stradner, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in law, Eastern Europe and hybrid warfare. “Indeed, had their systems given more cause for confidence, there may well have been more scope to partner with Russia on global relief efforts.”

Beyond the accuracy of the numbers in the Lancet article, there are questions about how Russia achieved its vaccine. Over the summer, the U.S. and U.K. governments accused Russia of hacking into biomedical companies doing vaccine work. Microsoft made a similar accusation in November. Among the targets were researchers at Oxford who were working on a vector vaccine, which is different from mRNA-based vaccines such as Moderna’s — and similar to Russia’s new Sputnik V.

Anna McCaffrey, a fellow at the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS, called the Lancet publication a welcome development. But she urged against assuming that Putin has altruistic motives. “Russia will surely try to capitalize on this and build geopolitical clout by scaling manufacturing and distribution within Russia and in other countries,” she said. 

Russia has launched disinformation campaigns to build suspicions against vaccines from Western companies. “This is something the United States needs to take extremely seriously, and take steps to counter. The [United States] should insist upon greater respect of regulatory and scientific norms and protocols moving forward,” McCaffrey said.

Stradner said, “Russia’s marketing and deployment of their vaccine diplomatically plays into their hybrid warfare strategy as an instrument to further undermine the West and win goodwill for their broader revisionist goals internationally.”

The announcement is a public-relations win for Putin, who risked credibility in his hard-hit nation by setting an aggressive deadline for vaccine delivery.

Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, also celebrated the news but said that the shortcuts in clinical trials and the hacking undermined the result. “In that sense, I don't think it's much of a soft-power victory in the developed world, though I think it is in the rest of the world looking for a cheap vaccine. It'll be a long-term instrument of foreign influence for Moscow in India, Africa and elsewhere.” 

The Russian government also began to distribute the vaccine before its phase 3 clinical trial had ended. Stradner said this demonstrated a “typical authoritarian disregard for individuals”: the Russian government was “lucky that their vaccine worked, but if it had gone awry, imagine the consequences.”