March 01, 2021

Sputnik V: First Place or Long Shot?

As the historic Battle of Stalingrad raged in 1942, Zinaida Yermolyeva, a 43-year-old Soviet microbiologist, was assigned to help the city overcome a cholera outbreak that was proving nearly as fatal to Soviet troops as the German bombardments. After early experiments on herself, Yermolyeva would go on to develop an effective way of treating drinking water that the Red Army was sourcing from the Volga River, as well as an eventual antibiotic against cholera, diphtheria and typhoid. Her efforts proved critical in protecting Soviet soldiers from infectious diseases at that fateful battle and – eventually – defeating the Nazi military juggernaut. Howard Florey, the inventor of penicillin, praised her as the creator of an antibiotic equal to his own.

Today, Russians are more skeptical about healthcare solutions promoted by their government: in a survey conducted in December, only 38 percent said they were willing to take the country’s domestically-made coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V (named after the first man-made satellite sent into space), despite Russia having the world’s fourth-largest outbreak – over 3.7 million cases. After a much-publicized August rollout of “the world’s first registered COVID vaccine,” the bullhorns of Russian state media lapsed into an awkward silence. The vaccine was available, it was safe (apparently), cases had begun to tick upwards in a second autumn wave, the government was reluctant to shutter businesses in another lockdown, and… there was no news about how to get inoculated.

President Vladimir Putin had announced on TV that mass inoculations would finally be widely available after having given priority to frontline workers. The results had been mixed: a few weeks ago, the developers of Sputnik V claimed that 1.5 million Russians had received a dose of the vaccine. These figures were subject to criticism, and rumors of healthcare workers being pressured into taking the vaccine didn’t help the cause. Since then, reliable data has been hard to find, with the best estimates suggesting that 0.69 doses of the vaccine have been administered per 100 people in Russia, considerably behind Israel (56.28), the United States (9.4) and France (2.25).

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