As Bolivia struggled late last year to secure deals with large drug firms to supply COVID-19 vaccines, the incoming president, Luis Arce, turned to Russia for help.
By the end of December, Bolivia clinched its first major COVID-19 vaccine deal, with enough shots for some 20% of the population. The first Sputnik V doses arrived in the country in late January, just as virus cases were spiking.
“It was a really marathon task,” said Bolivian trade minister Benjamin Blanco of the procurement quest, but Russia’s political will made it possible. Western vaccine makers “told us developing countries that we had to wait until June.” He didn’t name names.
Bolivia’s reliance on Moscow underscores how governments across the region have turned to Russia’s Sputnik V drug amid fears of being left behind in the global scramble for vaccines. As many wealthier developed nations have signed big deals with large drugmakers like Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca PLC, countries in Latin America have faced difficulties securing adequate vaccine supplies.
For Russia, acceptance in Latin America lends legitimacy to its vaccine, which faced initial skepticism. It also provides Moscow an opportunity to make in-roads in the resource rich region at a time when COVID-19 vaccines are becoming a tool for soft power. Sputnik V is named after the Soviet-era satellite that triggered the space race, in a nod to the project’s geopolitical importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Latin America’s Russian gamble looks a stronger bet after scientists said it was almost 92% effective in its first peer-reviewed study, published in early February in international journal the Lancet.
Current and former officials from three countries in the region, including Blanco, described to Reuters challenges in negotiating with multinational drugmakers. Officials from two of the countries described the comparative ease in dealing with Sputnik V’s marketeers, ranging from eagerness to engage to less onerous contractual terms, and in some instances a more attractive price.
But it’s not without risk. It’s unclear how effective Sputnik is against the new coronavirus variants, including one circulating widely in Brazil. And Russia has already experienced production delays domestically and overseas, including to Argentina, which in December became the first Latin country to sign a Sputnik V supply deal.
Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for U.S.-based Pfizer, said in response to questions from Reuters that the company and its German partner BioNTech SE are committed to working with governments and others “to ensure equitable and affordable access to our COVID-19 vaccine for people around the world.” She added that Pfizer and BioNTech currently have completed bilateral supply agreements with eight countries in Latin America.
At least ten countries in the region have said they have signed deals to receive AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is developed with UK’s University of Oxford.
Arce’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. Bolivia has this year signed deals with a supplier of AstraZeneca’s vaccine as well as China’s Sinopharm and is procuring further doses via global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX. Russia’s trade envoy to Bolivia, Iakov Fedorov, said the vaccine deal was “not so political” and the Russian government was “always predisposed to support and help” bring Bolivia together with Sputnik V’s marketers and manufacturers. Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute developed the drug, which the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) markets overseas.
RDIF agreed to supply 5.2 million shots of Sputnik V to Bolivia, enough of the two-shot vaccine for 2.6 million people. Bolivia has said it has received 20,000 shots of the vaccine.
The Kremlin and RDIF didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding Bolivia. Russia has said it is ramping up production hubs, mostly outside of the country. On Friday, RDIF said it had struck a deal with an Argentine company to produce Sputnik V locally.