Russia has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, recording about 73,000 deaths and over 3.8 million infections over the past year. Meanwhile, there is widespread skepticism over the domestically developed Sputnik V vaccine, with many Russians reluctant to get the shot. Now a peer-reviewed study published in the respected Lancet medical journal has confirmed the vaccine’s 91.6% efficacy, as developers of the shot have long maintained. “That’s good news for the developers of the vaccine in Russia. That’s good news for Russia writ large, which certainly has plenty of geopolitical ambitions surrounding the vaccine,” says Joshua Yaffa, correspondent for The New Yorker in Moscow. “And it’s frankly good news for the world.”
AMY GOODMAN: “Rage” by the Russian art collective Pussy Riot. Members of the collective were recently arrested after protesting for the release of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which we’ll be talking about in just a moment. That piece just released. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report.
In major vaccine news, a new report is out today in The Lancet medical journal revealing Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has been deemed to be safe and effective. Results from a late-stage trial with 20,000 volunteers found the two-dose vaccine has a 92% efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19. A number of countries have started or plan to use the vaccine, including Argentina, Venezuela, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Iran, as well as the Palestinian territories.
We go now to Moscow, where we’re joined by Joshua Yaffa of The New Yorker magazine. He’s just written an article headlined “The Sputnik V Vaccine and Russia’s Race to Immunity.”
It’s great to have you with us, Joshua. This is just breaking now, 92% efficacy. You wrote about the whole rollout and how this vaccine was developed. First respond to the latest news, then tell us about — and tell us about Sputnik V.
JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. Well, the latest news, as you mentioned, that The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal in the U.K., one of the world’s most respected journals of its type, published and essentially confirmed the data that had come out of Russia that Sputnik V, as you mentioned, 91.6% effective in preventing COVID-19 during a Phase III trial with more than 20,000 participants. That’s good news for the developers of the vaccine in Russia. That’s good news for Russia writ large, which certainly has plenty of geopolitical ambitions surrounding the vaccine. We can discuss those. You named some of the countries that have already placed preorders for Sputnik V. Russia is hoping that the vaccine can be a rare soft power win for the country these days.
And it’s frankly good news for the world, good news for those countries that are depending on Sputnik V for vaccine, especially given how difficult and complicated and expensive it is to access some of the other vaccines. During the first segment, we heard about some of the problems in America, and they only get even harder when you get outside of America into some of the low- and middle-income countries around the world that are struggling to get any vaccine whatsoever in 2021. So, the fact that Sputnik V, yet another vaccine, apparently will be added to the worldwide arsenal in the fight against COVID, I think that’s good news not just for Russia, but for a lot of countries that are looking to get vaccinated with whatever vaccine they can get access to, including Sputnik V.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Joshua, could you talk about the role played by Kirill Dmitriev, the director of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, in helping develop the vaccine? Who is Dmitriev?
JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. Dmitriev is the chief lobbyist and financial backer through his role at the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund — not a scientific figure in any least. He really piggybacked to a scientific project that was launched at Institute Gamaleya, a long-standing, more than 100-year-old scientific institute in Moscow. Dmitriev is very much a political player, an ambitious player, someone with experience both in the world of high politics and also high finance. He’s been involved in many stories over the years. He, for example, was met with Eric Trump in the Seychelles — sorry, not Eric Trump; Erik Prince in the Seychelles — just after Trump’s election to try and establish a back channel of communication between Russia and the Trump administration.
So, his role is not in terms of developing or fine-tuning the science, but really in the geopolitics of Sputnik V and the internal politics of Sputnik V, navigating it through the complicated world of Russian bureaucracy and political infighting, and being the person who presents and tries to sell Sputnik V on the world market. So he’s really a geopolitical player, a salesman, and whose job might have gotten a bit easier by The Lancet results announced today. But he has very little to do with the science of the vaccine, and so perhaps little to do with its success, but very much to do with the vaccine’s role and use as a geopolitical instrument on the part of Russia.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve written that Sputnik V is a vector vaccine. Could you explain what that means and how it relates or compares to the other COVID-19 vaccines that have already been approved in terms of technology?
JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. The vaccines that are being used now in the United States are so-called mRNA vaccines — that is, both the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine — which relies on a technology called messenger mRNA, hence the “m” in mRNA technology, which is a way of inserting or providing the body with, essentially, instructions in the form of mRNA code that tell the body how to create antibodies against COVID-19. It’s almost like programming a piece of software. Once the body reads that software, reads the script of that software, it knows what to do. It’s been told what to produce against what pathogen, and it goes about creating the immune response that then keeps a person safe from COVID-19 infection. That’s a very new technology, a really groundbreaking technology, that had been investigated for many years and subject of experiments but hadn’t really gotten very far in terms of testing, let alone rollout. So, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time we’re seeing mRNA technology in action.
Vector vaccines, of the kind as which you said Sputnik V is of this family of vaccine — the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, which may be approved soon and which we may be hearing more about Phase III results from soon. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was an early contender, we heard a lot about in the spring and summer, that has run into some problems during its Phase III testing, that’s also a vector vaccine. And vector vaccines, while each of the projects or prototype vaccines I mentioned just now uses a different so-called vector, which I’ll explain in a moment, all are based on the same fundamental technology, in that scientists take an existing virus, render it harmless, incapable of reproducing — most often scientists use adenovirus, which essentially is the virus for a common cold — take that virus, deactivate it, make it impossible of replicating itself, and then, within that virus, insert the DNA of another virus, in this case the protein, the spike protein, from COVID-19.
And that is why we get the name vector, which essentially means a kind of vessel or means of transmission, in that the adenovirus, the common cold virus, carries the DNA information from the spike protein of coronavirus. It’s a way of transmitting necessary DNA information into the body so that the body then creates the necessary antibodies to protect against disease.
The developers of Sputnik V — I visited the Institute Gamaleya, the scientific center I mentioned in Moscow, where the vaccine was developed — compared vector technology to a kind of rocketship meant to carry various payloads into space. The rocket stays the same; the payload, you can swap out whatever you like. It can carry military equipment. It can carry a missile. It can carry scientific research tools. It can carry a communications satellite. You can keep swapping out the payload as you like, but that rocket delivery mechanism stays the same. And that’s the metaphor that the developers of Sputnik V used in explaining how vector technology works.
AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] yourself, but also if you could tell us, Sputnik V, why they called it that?
JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. The name, I think, immediately speaks to the ambition of the vaccine from the Russian side. Sputnik, of course, is for many people an obvious and immediate reference to the first satellite launched into space by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union for a moment seemed like it was winning the space race and putting the United States on notice that the Soviet Union was a scientific and military powerhouse. And so, naming the vaccine after this moment of Soviet scientific glory, I think, to my ear and to the ear of many, telegraphed the notion that this wasn’t just a question of creating a necessary scientific product, a vaccine to help end the pandemic in Russia and around the world, but a way of announcing Russian prowess, Russian might, Russian know-how, that it very much, in addition to being a necessary and urgent tool in the fight against the pandemic, was also a way of creating a soft power or image victory for Russia, of which there have been so few in recent years.
We’ll talk about this in the next segment, but The Lancet results were announced on the same day, today, that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in court and may well be sent to prison for three-and-a-half years, after having survived an assassination attempt against him using Novichok. All that’s to say Russia’s image in the world has not exactly been very positive for some time now. And I think there was a lot of hope in Russia, in official circles, that if Sputnik V could be successful, as by now it seems on a scientific level it is, that that would help rehabilitate Russia’s image on the world stage, or it would be a much-needed and long-awaited good news story for Russia in the international arena.