Putin’s plan for Russia’s coronavirus vaccine is at ‘high risk of backfiring,’ expert says

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss situation in Syria.

Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin is trying to score “a domestic win” with the planned rollout of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, after mismanaging his country’s outbreak and failing to revive the economy, an expert said on Wednesday.

Claiming it’s the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine, Putin on Tuesday announced that Russia’s vaccine “works quite effectively” and “has passed all the necessary checks.” His claim that has drawn skepticism from scientists and public health officials.

“Let’s be very blunt here: Putin needs a win, he needs a domestic win,” J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

“He’s mismanaged the outbreak within his own territory, he’s lost the public trust and confidence in his efforts, his economy is on its back, he can’t deliver on any of the big costly public infrastructure projects that he promised in the last electoral campaign,” he added.

This is a case of Russia cutting corners for big gains, big wins domestically and — they hope — internationally.

J. Stephen Morrison

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Russia has reported more than 895,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease and over 15,100 deaths as of Wednesday afternoon in Asia, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The country’s cumulative infections are the fourth highest in the world behind the U.S., Brazil and India, Hopkins data showed.  

Like other many experts, Morrison questioned the speed at which Russia has tested its vaccine. Clinical trials were completed in less than two months and more extensive “phase three” trials are only set to start on Wednesday. There has yet to be any published data of earlier trials, so the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine remain unclear.

Still, Russia has announced that a full-scale production would begin next month.

“This is a case of Russia cutting corners for big gains, big wins domestically and — they hope — internationally,” said Morrison.

“It’s high risk, this is high risk of backfiring, particularly if there’s adverse impact and if they attempt to cover them up. And this is not the normal rules of the road, and so it’s causing a lot of discomfort.”

With the vaccine, Putin is trying to evoke the long-gone “golden days” of Russian science and immunology, said Morrison, who’s also director of CSIS’ Global Health Policy Center.

The Russian president has also marketed the vaccine to other countries, including the Philippines, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, according to Morrison. That could be Putin “playing on the anxiety” among low- and middle-income countries that they would lose out to rich nations with the resources to snap up vaccines produced by major global pharmaceutical companies, he explained.

— CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.

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