Argentina rolls out a Russian vaccine
At their dinner table in Mendoza, Antonio and Marta, husband and wife, disagreed over the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. “If it’s available, and free, why not?” asked Antonio, a sprightly businessman in his early 70s. “Not for me,” retorted Marta, a decade younger. “No way I think the Russians have the safe answer to this virus.”
On December 29th Argentina’s government unleashed Sputnik V across the country, issuing some 300,000 doses to all 23 provinces and the city of Buenos Aires. Elsewhere in Latin America, Mexico, Chile, and Costa Rica had been vaccinating on a small scale before the holiday with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. But Argentina, to quote a presidential adviser, “is leading the charge to inoculate all”.
Still, the cavalry has been met with doubts. Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s 61-year-old president, broke his promise to be the country’s first recipient, live on television, after Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who is 68, said he would put off his jab because of his age. Then Mr Fernández’s government sidestepped the normal procedures of its medical regulatory agency, anmat, in authorising Sputnik V.
On the eve of the vaccine’s launch, anmat specialists leaked internal memos to the Argentine media, expressing concerns about “adverse effects” of Sputnik V on older patients in trials in Russia. Warnings of “symptoms like influenza” got front-page headlines, though these are common with many vaccines.
Unsurprisingly, Sputnik V has become a political football. Alfredo Cornejo, leader of the Radical party, alleged corruption, suggesting that officials’ demands for bribes had scuppered deals with other producers in Europe and the United States.
Geopolitics played a role, too. The decision was “ideological”, says the presidential adviser, pointing to the role of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a former president who now serves as a powerful vice-president. Ms Fernández, who wants Russia and China to counterbalance American influence in the region, opened a back-channel to Mr Putin in November. (She also supported his annexation of Crimea in 2014.)
As the government delivered Sputnik V to health-care staff and the very old, broadcasting films of vaccinations, doctors expressed quiet dismay about the politics. “But the very idea of a vaccine being available could calm things down,” said a doctor in the capital, noting a spike in covid-19.
Sputnik V has a chequered history in Russia, where it bypassed the usual safety and efficacy trials for authorising the drug before use. New randomised trials are now belatedly under way in Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and India, so the vaccine may yet be redeemed. But Argentina’s decision to evade regulators and make political hay out of vaccinations has eroded confidence in the jab.
This could cost lives. Antonio has since agreed with his wife that Sputnik V is not for him: “I’ve too many doubts about this now.” Other countries tempted to play politics with vaccines should pay heed. Drug approval is best left to the experts.