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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Back in August, when the Taliban took over, we asked whether anyone in the international community would recognize them. Now it looks like things are heading that way.

This week, the Kremlin hosted a summit with the Taliban that was attended by China, India and Pakistan, as well as all five Central Asian Republics.

The domestically-focused US, however, wasn't there. The US continues to maintain that the Taliban can't be trusted. But does it matter? In 2021 does a Taliban-led government even need American recognition to function and thrive?

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Taking place on October 21 and 22, the Sustainability Leaders Summit will go beyond preexisting narratives and debate priorities for governments and industries ahead of COP26. Placing the spotlight on Asia's role in the global sustainability agenda, the event will address whether Asian countries and companies can achieve shared sustainability goals, and what is needed to help get them there. The summit will be co-hosted by Tak Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings, and Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. We will address three key questions: How can Asian countries, with the help of the private sector, achieve shared Sustainability Goals? Why does this matter? And what are the policy changes needed to bring it about?

Attendance is free and open to the public. Register to attend.

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For Kevin Rudd, former Australian PM and now CEO of the Asia Society, the science on climate change is pretty much done, so the only unresolved issues are tech and — more importantly — lack of political leadership. He can't think of a single national political leader who can fill the role, and says the only way to get political action on climate is to mobilize public opinion.

Rudd joined for the first of a two-part Sustainability Leaders Summit livestream conversation sponsored by Suntory. Watch here and register here to watch part two Friday 10/22 at 8 am ET.

The minutiae of supply chains makes for boring dinner table talk, but it's increasingly becoming a hot topic of conversation now that packages are taking much longer to arrive in the consumer-oriented US, while prices of goods soar.

With the issue unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, right-wing media have dubbed President Biden the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, conjuring images of sad Christmas trees surrounded by distraught children whose holiday gifts are stuck somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

It hasn't been a good run for Uncle Joe in recent months. What issues are tripping him up?

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the NBA's latest rift with China, Brazil's Senate investigation, and COVID booster shots.

China wipes Boston Celtics from NBA broadcast after the "Free Tibet" speech from Enes Kanter. Is NBA boxing itself into a corner?

Nice mixed sports metaphor there. NBA has some challenges because they are of course the most progressive on political and social issues in the United States among sports leagues, but not when it comes to China, their most important international market. And you've seen that with LeBron James telling everyone about we need to learn better from the Communist Party on issues like Hong Kong and how Daryl Morey got hammered for taking his stance in favor of Hong Kong democracy. Well, Enes Kanter's doing the same thing and he's a second-string center. Didn't even play yesterday and still the Chinese said that they were not going to air any Boston Celtics games. Why? Because he criticized the Chinese government and had some "Free Tibet" sneakers. This is a real problem for a lot of corporations out there, but particularly publicly, the NBA. Watch for a bunch of American politicians to make it harder for the NBA going forward, saying how dare you kowtow to the Chinese when you're all about "Black Lives Matter" inside the United States. No fun.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

A Trump media platform? Is this for real?

This week, President Trump announced his potential return to social media through the creation of his own digital media platform that's going to merge with an existing publicly-traded company in a deal known as a SPAC. These deals are increasingly popular for getting access to capital, and it seems like that's where President Trump is headed.

The publicly-traded company's stock was up on the news, but it's really hard to see this coming together. The Trump media company claims it wants to go up against not only Facebook and Twitter, but companies like Amazon and cloud computing and even Disney providing a safe space for conservatives to share their points of view. The fact of the matter is, conservatives do quite well on existing social media platforms when they aren't being kicked off for violating the terms of service, and other conservative social media platforms that have attempted to launch this year haven't really gone off the ground.

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Protests in Sudan: Protests are again shaking the Sudanese capital, as supporters of rival wings of the transitional government take to the streets. Back in 2019, after popular demonstrations led to the ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir, a deal was struck between civilian activists and the army, in which a joint civilian-military government would run the country until fresh elections could be held in 2023. But now supporters of the military wing are calling on it to dissolve the government entirely, while supporters of the civilian wing are counter-protesting. Making matters worse, a pro-military tribal leader in Eastern Sudan has set up a blockade which is interrupting the flow of goods and food to the capital. The US, which backs the civilian wing, has sent an envoy to Khartoum as tensions rise, while Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all vying for a piece as well.

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