Putin's vaccine gamble

Putin's vaccine gamble

"Go ahead, take it," President Putin says to you.

"Take what?" you ask.

"This Covid vaccine," he continues, turning a small syringe over in his hands. "It's safe. Trust me. We… tested it on my daughter."

Would you do it? Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that a lot of people will say yes. On Tuesday he announced that Russia has become the first country to register a COVID-19 vaccine, and that mass vaccinations will begin there in October.


The catch is: no one knows if it really works. In order to win the vaccine race, the Gamaleya institute in Moscow never ran what scientists call a "Phase III Trial": the critical final round of testing in which medications are given to thousands of people to make sure that they actually deliver immunity without intolerable side effects.

Globally, there are just eight vaccines at Phase III right now, and Russia says it will join them this week. But up until now the Russian vaccine has been tested on just 76 people. Among them are the Russian scientists who developed the vaccine -- they injected themselves with it and seemed pleased with the results. And one of Putin's daughters took it as well. After a day or so of fever, her dad said, she was fine.

Cutting corners to win the global vaccine race isn't without risk, so what are the pros and cons here for Putin?

Well, if the vaccine is effective, it would deliver a few huge wins.

A PR coup. The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest global crisis since World War Two, and it won't truly end until there's a vaccine. Russian state TV has been hyping this for months, and getting there first would be a huge feather in Putin's cap: it's no accident that the vaccine was named Sputnik V, an homage to the time that the USSR beat the USA to put the world's first satellite in orbit.

A public health victory. A successful vaccine would enable economic and social life to get back to normal in Russia faster than anywhere else. That would be a huge help for Putin, whose approval ratings have touched historic lows during the pandemic.

Soft power in a syringe. If other countries line up to get the Russian vaccine rather than wait for the other Phase III trials around the world to finish, it would give Russia tremendous influence over economies and societies around the world. Moscow says at least 20 countries have already expressed interest. If the key to returning to (something like) normalcy says "Made in Russia" on it, people won't forget.

Lastly, vaccine is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. Russia says there's already demand for a billion doses. Whoever manufactures those billion doses will be raking in big cash. And permission to hold that lucrative rake will, as ever, come directly from Putin himself – a company this important will be controlled by people very close to the Russian president.

What if the vaccine doesn't work? Cases could surge again as ineffectively-vaccinated people begin socializing and working as normal again. Negative side effects could be widespread. The logistics of delivering it at home and abroad could seize up.

If any of these things happens on a large scale, it will be hard to cover up, and Russia would take a hit in all four of the areas above, particularly if competing vaccines elsewhere in the world emerge from Phase III trials soon.

But given the upsides, Putin is probably betting that the vaccine is good enough to make any negative news of that kind easy to contain, deny, or spin.

He's also waiting for an answer to his question to you: what's it gonna be — would you roll up your sleeve for Sputnik V?

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Watch Yau's story as he shows how his family and community enjoy life-enhancing access to both water and light.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. And I thought I'd talk a little bit today about the latest in Israel, Palestine. It's obviously been driving headlines all week. And of course, on social media, there's no topic that we all get along and agree with each other more than Israel, Palestine. It's an easy one to take on. Yeah, I know I'm completely full of crap on that. But I thought I would give you some sense of what I think is actually happening where we're going. So first point, massive fight, big conflict between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli defense forces. Not only that, but also more violence and a lot of violence breaking out between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Extremists on both sides taking to the streets and fairly indiscriminate violence, in this case, worst since 2014.

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Join GZERO Media and Microsoft for a live conversation on cyber challenges facing governments, companies, and citizens in a Munich Security Conference "Road to Munich" event on Tuesday, May 18.

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Watch the episode: India's COVID calamity

Listen: Ask national security experts how they view China today and they'll likely the use a term like "adversary" or "economic competitor." But what about "enemy?" How close is the world to all-out-war breaking out between United States and China? According to US Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), who served as Supreme Allied Commander to NATO, those odds are higher than many would like to admit. In fact, Stavridis says, the US risks losing its military dominance in the coming years to China. And if push comes to shove in a military conflict, it's not entirely clear who would prevail. Admiral Stavridis discusses his bestselling new military thriller 2034 and makes the case for why his fictional depiction of a US-China war could easily become reality.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

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When asked about where a US-China war may start, US Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.) doesn't hesitate: Taiwan. He suggests that China may believe the US is distracted by internal politics: "I think it would be a miscalculation on the part of the Chinese, but they may calculate that now is the moment." How would a move against Taiwan play out? Stavridis speculates how the Chinese military may plan to invade the island on the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which begins airing on US public television Friday, May 14. Check local listings.

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Beyond SolarWinds: Securing Cyberspace. Watch on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 10am PT/ 1pm ET

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Beyond SolarWinds: Securing Cyberspace | Watch on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 10am PT / 1 pm PT

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