Russian vaccine: Now the race for Sputnik V is picking up speed

Den Weimar Lord Mayor Peter Kleine has been preoccupied with one thought for months: How he can supply the roughly 65,000 citizens of his city with vaccine as quickly as possible. The non-party 48-year-old local politician came up with a daring thought: “I was wondering whether, as the head of the city, I could buy vaccine directly on the world market.”

Weimar's Lord Mayor Peter Kleine

Weimar’s Lord Mayor Peter Kleine

Source: Marlene Gawrisch / WELT

Kleine was thinking primarily of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which is now used in 57 countries around the world. These include Latin American countries such as Argentina and Bolivia, many developing countries, but also the EU members Hungary and Slovakia. With the help of the Weimar-based technology company Glatt, Kleine contacted the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). At the same time he discussed with Thuringia’s Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow (left), who quickly became enthusiastic about the idea.

Ramelow had already spoken out in March together with the East German Prime Ministers Michael Kretschmer and Reiner Haseloff (both CDU) that the Russian vaccine should also be inoculated in Germany. The Ost-Connection, which campaigned for Sputnik early on, has now become a high-ranking, nationwide support group – and a colorful party politically.

It ranges from the non-party small to the left-wing politician Ramelow, CDU Prime Minister and the CDU-led Federal Ministry of Economics to the CSU Minister of Health of Bavaria, Klaus Holetschek.

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Thuringia's Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow

They are all united by the drive to get the vaccine shortage under control as quickly as possible and to supply the country with as many vaccines as possible. The other side, the Russian partners, are pursuing several interests with their vaccine offensive. Economic, of course, that is clear. But ultimately also political.

It is not without reason that the vaccine was named after the Soviet satellite, which stands for the technical and scientific race between Russia and the USA in the Cold War and which gave the western world the so-called Sputnik shock after its successful launch into Earth orbit in 1957. A success of the Sputnik V vaccine in the West would be a success for Russia and therefore President Vladimir Putin.

In March, the investment fund wrote to the Erfurt State Chancellery

Sputnik V is a hundred percent child of the Russian state. The vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya State Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund is responsible for marketing and sales. The bustling sovereign wealth fund not only advertises the vaccine on all – especially digital channels. He also forges relationships wherever possible that should pave the way for the vaccine. Especially to Germany – and there, among other things, to Weimar.

In March, the RDIF wrote to the Erfurt State Chancellery, the letter is available to WELT. “We were happy to take note of your public statements about our Sars-Cov2 vaccine,” said the fund’s deputy head, Tagir Sitdekov, in Ramelow. The Russian emphasized that the EU states Hungary and Slovakia are already using Sputnik V. He would be happy to talk to the Thuringian authorities about a “local emergency approval”, possibly even before the European Medicines Agency (EMA) issues the final EU approval for Sputnik V.

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A package of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is shown in the state of Brandenburg where the first coronavirus vaccinations are given in doctors' surgeries, in Senftenberg, Germany, March 3, 2021. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/Pool

Ramelow replied promptly and affirmed that “we must use more effort to bring Sputnik V to Germany as a supplementary offer as quickly as possible”. He asked Sitdekov “how far, from your point of view, the procedure has actually progressed, and whether support can be offered by my state government in order to contribute to faster processing”.

Because Sputnik V is not yet approved in the EU. Among other things, the idea was born to import the Russian vaccine to Germany in good time, cleared and sealed, in order to initially store it and then to be able to use it immediately after official approval by the EMA. But that is not legally possible. Nevertheless, the Thuringian efforts were not in vain. Because Ramelow also discussed with the Chancellor, who assured him that talks about the conclusion of a framework agreement with Moscow had started.

The Russians are persistent in marketing Sputnik V in Germany for several reasons. On the one hand, the Federal Republic of Germany is a large and important market. If Sputnik is used successfully there, a suction effect arises. On the other hand, Germany is the ideal place for a hub from which the vaccine can be produced and exported.

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Sberbank boss Herman Gref (left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin

And Sputnik V Made in Germany – also from the Russian point of view – has a higher reputation and impact than the one made in Russia. For this reason, the Russians are also trying not only to sell the vaccine in this country, but also to produce it.

To ensure that this succeeds, there is a cooperation between the RDIF and the Russian pharmaceutical manufacturer R-Pharm. He has a German subsidiary who has bought a plant in Illertissen, Bavaria, and wants to run both AstraZeneca and Sputnik V off the production line there as a contract manufacturer. If that succeeds, that would be good for the RDIF – and for R-Pharm. Because the group is so far only number three among the manufacturers of Sputnik V in Russia. However, R-Pharm Germany in Illertissen is to become the “authorization holder” after approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). That means that from there, where Sputnik goes in Europe would be centrally controlled. The location in Bavaria would thus play an important role in the supply of vaccines.

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Federal government offensive

That is why the project is being pushed forward by the Bavarian Minister of Health Holetschek, who has already visited the plant on site, although production there will probably only start in the summer. For Holetschek and the state government in Munich, the factory is more than an important settlement, it is important for the vaccine supply as a whole. So the minister clears hurdles out of the way wherever possible. Just like the Federal Ministry of Economics.

A “Taskforce Vaccination” was founded to ensure that the production of vaccines in Germany is expanded as soon as possible. This should at least prevent bottlenecks in the future. The R-Pharm plant in Illertissen can look forward to particularly close support from the ministry and the task force. Whenever there is a problem with the expansion of the plant, the task force checks with the local authorities.

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The R-Pharm representatives have not yet complained, but the approval processes for pharmaceutical production are strict and complex. A few weeks ago the local district office had announced that it could take six to seven months before the first vaccines could be filled. The ministry intervened and conveyed that “all permits will be fulfilled without the slightest reduction in the conditions, but as quickly as possible”, as it is called in the circles of participants. In other words: The Federal Ministry of Economics has made it clear that the project has absolute priority. Now it is said that production could start from June to August.

The Sputnik manufacturers also need political support. Many Russians themselves distrust the vaccine, because the public and experts are far from having all the data on the vaccine. And even in Western Europe, the Russian offer does not meet with approval everywhere. It was not long ago that Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner responsible for the internal market and services and head of the EU vaccine task force, declared: “We have absolutely no need for Sputnik V.”

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The EU undoubtedly already has, especially since the AstraZeneca vaccine is only used to a limited extent in many countries. But Sputnik is not only concerned with the vaccine supply and the expected profits, but also with something third: politics. “Of course the Russian side would like to bring the vaccine successfully to the West in order to score with it and to polish up the image,” says an insider who is supposed to ensure the success of Sputnik V in Germany on behalf of the Russians. “Anyone who is helped out of the vaccination crisis with Russian support speaks less about the Kremlin critic Alexej Navalny or the annexation of the Crimea.”

And that may also reduce the desire to maintain the West’s sanctions against Russia. In Russia, the image gain is an important factor for the Sputnik offensive. And it bears more and more fruit.

Last Tuesday there was a video conference between Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Russian President Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. The topic: a possible cooperation on vaccines. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert emphasized: “This evaluation is carried out according to the same standards that are also applied to all other vaccines.” According to the Kremlin, perspectives of “possible deliveries and the joint production of this preparation in EU countries” were discussed.

“We will increasingly have to do with pragmatism”

Despite many issues, Russia and the EU come together on the Sputnik V vaccine. “We will have to do more and more with pragmatism,” says WELT correspondent Christoph Wanner.

EMA experts are due to travel to Russia in April to assess the production and storage of the vaccine.

What was initiated in Weimar and Erfurt now seems to be taking concrete shape via Berlin, Paris and Moscow. “If you don’t do anything, nothing happens,” says Kleine.

The Weimar upper citizen reports that, according to his impression, the acceptance of Sputnik V in the city, in the east in general, is very high. “The Russians know their way around vaccines,” he often heard on the street. As early as 1960, children in the GDR were successfully vaccinated against polio with a vaccine developed in the Soviet Union – a US vaccine was only used later in West Germany. At that time, vaccination was compulsory in the GDR, and with fraternal help from the Soviet Union, the state got the polio epidemic under control faster than its West German neighbor.

When the polio vaccine arrived in the GDR in 1960, the church bells are said to have rung out of gratitude in the country, remember people who grew up in the East. Such memories also play a role today when politicians stand up for Sputnik.

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