Russia and India stepping in to help with vaccine shortage across Africa

By Camille Lafrance, Léa Masseguin, Olivier Marbot

Posted on Friday, 12 February 2021 11:14
Algeria began its vaccination campaign against the coronavirus pandemic on Saturday January 31, using the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. © Fateh Guidoum / AP / SIPA

Although Covid-19 vaccination campaigns are accelerating throughout the world, much of Africa seems to be lagging behind. But the Russians, who were the first to approve their Sputnik V vaccine, see this as an opportunity to boost their prestige, while major Indian suppliers are embarking on the more classic commercial route.

First there was Covax, a vast international system that was supposed to guarantee equitable access to the vaccine for all countries. However, very quickly it became every person for him/herself and the advent of “vaccine nationalism” meant that everyone understood that they would have to manage for themselves. Africa then saw the arrival of its Chinese, Russian and Indian “friends” ready to help.

Whereas the famous “Sputnik V” created in the Gamaleya laboratory seems above all to be an issue of national pride for Moscow and a means of strengthening ties with certain capitals, the Indian approach appears to be very different, a more conventional and undoubtedly less “romantic.”

What is the Russian Sputnik V vaccine worth?

In Moscow, the development and then supply of the vaccine to “friendly” countries is clearly a matter of national pride. The Russians were the first to announce last summer that they had succeeded in developing a vaccine, even though their Sputnik V was still being tested and rather less advanced than other competitors. Many compare this vaccine contest to the space race that took place between 1957 and 1975 (Sputnik, the name chosen by the Russians is not insignificant in this respect).

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The result was a somewhat amusing battle of efficiency rates (Pfizer announcing 91%, Gamaleya replying with 92%, Moderna entering the race with 94.1% and the Russians raising their percentage to 95%).

Shipments were then rapidly dispatched to Belarus, Argentina, Egypt and Algeria. In Guinea, a mini-test was carried out, including on members of the government, in December reinforcing the impression that the sale of the Russian serum is negotiated above all at the politico-diplomatic level.

This was confirmed by Hichem Louzir, the director of the Pasteur Institute of Tunis. “We had a virtual meeting on 13 January, where everything was on the right track. The Russians were ready to deliver to us within a fortnight from the moment we gave our answer. We already had the data, we were able to study the documents they gave us to authorise its use. The Russian embassy was organising meetings with the Gamaleya Institute and the Russian public investment agency [the Russian Direct Investment Fund]. »

During the Cold War, one of the Soviet Union’s tools of influence was supplying vaccines to “brother” countries. In keeping with the great tradition of researchers from the former USSR, Alexander Gintsburg – the head of the Gamaleya Institute that developed Sputnik V – was the first to inject himself with the vaccine in order to test for possible side effects. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin’s own daughter was among the first patients to receive an injection, not out of favouritism but to reassure the population of the product’s safety.

What about India’s major industrialists?

Unlike the Brazilians, Kazakhs, Russians or Chinese, Indian industrialists are anything but newcomers to the world market. In particular there is the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s leading producer of vaccines in terms of volume, and Bharat Biotech , which is developing a serum called Covaxin made 100% in India.

For a long time, they have been producing millions of doses of vaccines against the main diseases affecting countries in the South at a very competitive price and supplying international organisations and NGOs.

In the case of Covid-19, SII very quickly signed an agreement with AstraZeneca authorising it to manufacture and package its AZD1222. The company claims to produce 100 million doses per month and will supply several African countries, including Morocco. The only problem is that India is also a densely populated country that has been badly affected by the pandemic. This gave rise to a controversy at the beginning of January.

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“In fact, the contract between SII and AstraZeneca makes it possible to export,” says Achal Prabhala, a fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation and coordinator of the AccessIBSA project. “A certain number of doses have been preempted by Gavi, which will distribute them. But the contract does not specify any figures or distribution rules and does not say how many doses India can keep for itself. The SII says the Indian government had prohibited it from exporting its production, claims denied by Delhi so the laboratory retracted its statements.”

Has the situation been blown out of proportion? Yes and no, the stakes are anything but anecdotal. “What is certain is that India will have its say,” says Prabhala. “A supply contract has just been signed with South Africa, so we can see that there is no ban on exports, but there will undoubtedly be limits on quantities, dictated by the Indian authorities.”

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SII, which also holds the production licences for Novavax, Codagenix and Bharat’s vaccines, has already started contributing to the Covax programme since the worldwide distribution of the first doses were unveiled on 3 February .

When questioned as to whether Indian laboratories should demonstrate “vaccine diplomacy” or “solidarity with countries of the South”, Prabhala chuckles. “Solidarity is a romantic idea but it’s not based on anything. In this matter, everyone is above all pragmatic.”

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