Sputnik V: The Story Of Russia's Controversial COVID‑19 Vaccine

Sputnik V: The Story Of Russia's Controversial COVID‑19 Vaccine

By Kristyna Foltynova March 4, 2021

In 1957, the world's first manmade object entered into orbit around the Earth. It was called Sputnik and it was launched by the Soviet Union. Sixty-three years later, Russia launched another Sputnik: Sputnik V, the first vaccine registered against the coronavirus.

Despite serious concerns by experts that the vaccine was rushed out without the necessary trials, more than 40 countries have so far decided to put their faith in it and, to varying degrees, have approved Sputnik V for use. Here's what you need to know about it.

How Does Sputnik V Work?

Sputnik V is a viral-vector vaccine. That means that it uses a modified version of a different virus as a tool to transport genetic material to a cell. Sputnik V was developed using adenoviruses, which normally causes respiratory infections, but other viruses (including the influenza or measles virus) have also been used in other viral-vector therapies.

The virus, which is used as a vector, is altered so it poses no threat of causing an illness. It is also inserted with an extra gene that is unique to the virus being targeted. For COVID-19 vaccines, this gene contains instructions on how to make a spike protein, which is found on the surface of the coronavirus.

Once a person gets the vaccine, the vector enters a cell and uses it to make spike proteins. As soon as the immune system recognizes the spike proteins, it starts producing antibodies and activates other immune processes in the body. If the system interacts with the actual virus in the future, it already knows how to fight it.

What Was The Process Of Developing Sputnik V?

Russia started clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine in June 2020.

Less than two months later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology had registered the world's first COVID-19 vaccine for use. Phase 3 trials, which usually involve thousands of people and last several months, hadn't even started at that point. Therefore, many health experts warned that the data was not conclusive and questioned the vaccine's safety.

Shortly after that, Russia announced that it would expand trials for the vaccine and include up to 40,000 volunteers. Phase 3 trials then began in September 2020.

After vaccinating some of the country's medical workers, a large-scale rollout started in December 2020. At this point, the vaccine was still undergoing testing. Two weeks later, Belarus became the first foreign country to register the Russian vaccine for use.

In February 2021, the medical journal The Lancet published a study that said the Sputnik V vaccine was 91.6 percent effective. It also concluded that the vaccine was safe and could protect against hospitalization and death.

While Sputnik V has been approved (to some extent) in more than 40 countries so far, it hasn't yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Despite this, Hungary registered the vaccine for use on January 21 as the first country in the European Union. In early March 2021, a deal for 2 million doses was also signed in Slovakia, another EU member.

On March 4, 2021, the EMA announced it had started a rolling review of Sputnik V.

How Does Sputnik V Compare To Other Vaccines?

Sputnik V can be kept in a standard refrigerator at 2-8 degrees Celsius, which makes it a bit easier to store than some other vaccines -- the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the Moderna vaccine at minus 20 degrees Celsius.

According to The Lancet, its effectiveness is 91.6 percent -- slightly lower than Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, but higher than AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, for example. However, some scientists say the effectiveness of vaccines is difficult to compare, as they were tested during various stages of the pandemic and haven't been tested against each other.

Unlike other vaccines, the first dose of Sputnik V is not identical to the second dose. They vary slightly, as each uses a different virus as a vector: There is adenovirus Ad26 in the first dose and adenovirus Ad5 in the second dose. The Gamaleya Center believes this might help to boost the immune response.

Comparing prices of vaccines is tricky because the data varies based on the country the vaccine is imported to. For example, the European Union was able to negotiate a price of $2.16 for each dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is less than half of the price in South Africa, according to some reports.

In general, vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna tend to be more expensive, while the vaccine by Johnson & Johnson might be the most cost-effective, as it requires just a single shot. A price of around $10 puts Sputnik V somewhere in the middle price range.

Which Countries Want To Use Sputnik V?

As of March 4, 2021, Sputnik V has been registered or approved for emergency use in more than 40 countries around the world. The list includes many countries in Latin America, but also several countries in Africa and Asia. In Europe, the vaccine has been approved (to some extent) in Belarus, Republika Srpska of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, San Marino, Serbia, and Slovakia.

While most EU members want to see if the vaccine gets the green light from the European Medicines Agency first, some have considered buying it sooner. Hungary and Slovakia have already received their first doses. On the other hand, Ukraine's government announced on February 10, 2021, that it had banned the registration of vaccines for COVID-19 from "aggressor states," a designation it has applied to Russia since 2015.

Altogether, more than 1.2 billion doses have been preordered from Russia. And with the growing list of countries approving Sputnik V, the question remains: Will Russia be able to deliver all of the vaccines on time? Several vaccine producers have been dealing with production delays and the Gamaleya Center is no exception. In January for example, Russia warned of delays in supplies to countries in Latin America, including vaccines for Argentina and Mexico.

Outside of Russia, at least six countries plan to produce Sputnik V on their territory, including India, South Korea, and Brazil.

Sputnik V Around The World
(as of March 4, 2021)

What Do Russians Think About Sputnik V?

When it comes to vaccines in general, Russians seem to be quite skeptical. According to a study published by The Lancet in September 2020, only 21 percent of Russians said they believed vaccines are safe and just 35 percent agreed that vaccines are effective. Based on that data, Russia ranked among the countries with the lowest confidence in vaccines in the world.

It should come as no surprise that the perception of COVID-19 vaccines is no different. In August 2020, only about one-quarter of Russian medical professionals said they were ready to take the vaccine that Russia had started manufacturing.

Do Russian Doctors Want To Get Vaccinated?
(August 2020)

In late January 2021, when Russians were asked whether they would get a coronavirus vaccine if it was available, 42 percent said yes. It was the lowest share among countries surveyed by Ipsos.

In February 2021, the Levada Center asked Russians whether they want to get the Sputnik V vaccine. Only 30 percent of them said yes. Those who said no cited a lack of testing and possible side effects as the main reasons.

Do Russians Want To Get Vaccinated?
(February 2021)

In January 2021, YouGov asked people in 17 countries whether they would tend to think more positively or negatively about a COVID-19 vaccine if it was developed in a certain country.

The results showed that people would trust a hypothetical vaccine developed in Germany the most, followed by vaccines developed in Canada and the United Kingdom. Russia, India, China, and Iran got negative scores, which means that people would feel more worried than reassured by a vaccine coming from these countries.

People from Denmark and the United Kingdom were among those who would feel the least comfortable about a vaccine developed in Russia. The perceptions of a Russian vaccine were most positive in Mexico and India.

Feelings About Possible Vaccine Development
(A higher score shows people would think more positively about a vaccine developed in this country.)

How Is The Vaccination Process Going In Russia?

Russian authorities don't release data on vaccination rates regularly. However, according to the latest estimates, about 1.5 percent of Russia's population has received at least one dose of the Sputnik V vaccine as of February 10, 2021.

Although Russia was the first country in the world to begin vaccinations, it lags behind Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States, and many other countries where the process started later than in Russia.

Percentage Of People Who Received At Least One Dose Of A COVID-19 Vaccine
(Selected countries as of February 10, 2021)

According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the speed of the vaccination campaign in Russia is "normal." Nevertheless, it was estimated in the middle of February that vaccinations were occurring in Russia at one-quarter of the speed than in the United States, for example.

And with more countries wanting to order Sputnik V, questions have arisen about Russia's strategy: "We still wonder why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating its own people," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference on February 17.

Russia plans to vaccinate 68 million people this year, but the combination of skepticism towards vaccines and possible production hurdles might make that goal difficult to reach. On top of that, President Vladimir Putin has been reluctant to get the vaccine himself, which hasn't helped build confidence in Sputnik V.

Vaccines As A Tool Of Diplomacy

While the Russian vaccine ultimately seems to have proven its effectiveness, some experts are worried that it was rushed out and that priority was given to boosting national pride over safety. Some have even warned that the vaccine has become an effective tool of diplomacy, with Russia trying to gain wider geopolitical influence through vaccine deliveries.

Sputnik V has already caused tension within the European Union after Hungary started to use the vaccine even before it was approved by the EMA. Russia has also supplied the vaccine to the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine despite a ban by Kyiv. Moreover, there were allegations of a Russian disinformation campaign targeting Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, in an effort to persuade people that Russian vaccines worked better than those from the United States.

The Future Of Sputnik V

Due to shortages of Western-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines, more countries are now turning to the vaccine developed by Russia. This is happening despite concerns about Russia's insufficient transparency, the lack of approval for Sputnik V by the European Medicines Agency, possible production issues, and the low confidence of Russians in their own vaccine.

Russia is currently among the top five countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. The big question is: Will it be able to vaccinate its own population while also delivering the vaccines that it has promised abroad?