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Covid-19: Russia, facing lags, turns to China to produce Sputnik vaccine

To manufacture the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in an attempt to speed up production as demand rises for its shot Russia is turning to multiple Chinese firms.

In recent weeks, Russia has declared three deals totalling 260 million doses with Chinese vaccine companies. It’s a decision that could mean quicker access to a shot for countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa that has ordered Russia’s vaccine, as the U.S. and the European Union focus mainly on domestic vaccination needs.

The earlier criticism about Russia’s vaccine has been largely satisfied by data issued in the British medical journal The Lancet that said large-scale testing showed it to be safe, with an efficacy rate of 91%.

However, experts have examined whether Russia can fulfil its commitment to countries across the world. While guaranteeing hundreds of millions of doses, it has only achieved a fraction.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the need for Sputnik V significantly exceeds Russia’s domestic production capacity.

So as to boost production, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled Sputnik V, has signed agreements with multiple drug makers in other countries, such as India, South Korea, Brazil, Serbia, Turkey, Italy and others. There are few suggestions, but, that producers abroad, except for those in Belarus and Kazakhstan, have made any large amounts of the vaccine so far.

A London-based science analytics company, Airfinity, considers Russia granted to supply some 630 million doses of Sputnik V to over 100 countries, with only 11.5 million doses shipped so far.

It was declined by the RDIF to disclose how many doses are going to other countries. Through April 27, less than 27 million two-dose sets of Sputnik V have been reportedly produced in Russia.

In April, The Russian Direct Investment Fund(RDIF), which has been in charge of international cooperation for Sputnik V, said it would produce 100 million doses in collaboration with Hualan Biological Bacterin Inc., in addition to an earlier deal announced in March for 60 million doses with Shenzhen Yuanxin Gene tech Co.

RDIF said in April the terms of the deal were for 100 million doses with a subsidiary company relating to Tibet Rhodiola. The two deals are in addition to a deal stated last November with Tibet Rhodiola Pharmaceutical Holding Co, which had paid $9 million to manufacture and sell the Sputnik V vaccine in China.

Russia is “very ambitious and unlikely to meet their full targets,” said Rasmus Bech Hansen, founder and CEO of Airfinity. Operating with China to produce Sputnik V could be a win-win situation for both Russia and China, he added.

In recent times, Chinese vaccine companies have transformed from largely making products for use domestically to supplying the global market, with individual firms gaining WHO preapproval for specific vaccines — seen as a seal of quality. Amidst the pandemic, Chinese vaccine companies have exported hundreds of millions of doses abroad.

So as to meet China’s domestic need by the end of the year, Chinese vaccine makers have been quick to expand capacity.

“This is an acknowledgment of the Chinese vaccine manufacturers who can produce at volume,” said Helen Chen, head of pharmaceuticals LEK Consulting, a strategy consultancy firm in Shanghai, in an email.

But, none of the three Chinese companies has yet to start making Sputnik V.

At the end of last year, Tibet Rhodiola started constructing a factory in Shanghai and anticipates production to start in September, the company said at an annual meeting for investors last month. Tibet Rhodiola’s chairman Chen Dalin also said that after the triumphant technology transfer, they will start with an order of 80 million doses to sell back to Russia. An employee at the company declined to transfer a phone call request to the company’s media department for comment. The timeline for the newest deals is also not clear. Hualan Bio was among the 10 largest vaccines manufacturers in China in 2019. Phone calls to Hualan Bio went ignored.

A spokeswoman for Shenzhen Yuanxing refused to say when the company will start manufacturing but said their order would not be for sale within China. RDIF had said the production will start this month.

Despite the pauses, Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has made gains.

At the outset, Russia, the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine, intended to distribute it globally. Within weeks of giving Sputnik V regulatory approval, RDIF started actively marketing it abroad, declaring multiple deals to supply the shot to other countries. It is so far winning the “public relations” battle, analysts said in a new report examining Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Russia has been able to build stronger diplomatic ties and in areas where it hasn’t been able to,” before, said Imogen Page-Jarrett, an analyst at EIU. “They have this window of opportunity while the US, E.U. and India are focusing on domestic and the rest of the world is crying out for a vaccine supply.”

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