Tensions rise in great global vaccine race

Safety second? Russia has given Sputnik V to 2,000 front-line personnel since August. © EPA

Is liberal democracy going to be the biggest Covid victim? Russia and China have shunned safety to surge ahead in the search for a vaccine, reigniting old battles between East and West.

In a gloomy doctor’s office in central Moscow, the patient winced as he watched the nurse prepare the syringe.

But within seconds, the jab was over. As he stepped out into the cold October sunshine, a long queue snaked down the street.

This is Sputnik V: Russia’s flagship coronavirus vaccine and, as of August, the first to be registered anywhere in the world.

It was a big win for the Kremlin: ever since Covid-19 first appeared in China at the end of last year, scientists all across the globe have been racing to find a vaccine.

Some nations are moving faster than others. China has already inoculated hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and plans to distribute experimental vaccines to thousands more.

Outside observers are looking on in horror. It normally takes up to a decade to produce and approve a vaccine, but Russia and China have squeezed the process into months. Scientists have no idea if the vaccines are safe, or even if they work at all – Sputnik V was tested on just 76 people before it was approved by President Putin.

“It is a dangerous bet that could backfire,” says diplomat François Heisbourg. “But the proof is in the pudding: if it works, they will look extremely smart.”

Indeed, for politicians worldwide, the search for a vaccine is about more than saving lives. Beijing is still reeling from the backlash of its failure to contain the virus in Wuhan – producing the first successful vaccine could turn their fortunes around.

It is a battle that is becoming increasingly bitter: Western intelligence agencies have accused both Russia and China of stealing research after state-sponsored groups were caught hacking into university networks.

And despite pressure from Donald Trump, who called for a vaccine in time for US election day on 3 November, Western scientists are much more cautious than their Eastern counterparts.

As a result, the West is rapidly falling behind in this new space race. In recent weeks, trials for two of the most promising vaccines have been paused after unexplained illnesses.

Officials worry that if they approve a Covid-19 jab that later turns out to be dangerous, it will ruin public trust in vaccines forever. “We cannot cut corners, and we cannot be seen to be cutting corners,” says British virologist Stuart Neil.

In the meantime, developing countries, without the resources to pay for vaccines or the technology to create their own, are looking to the East.

It is an opportunity that Russia and China are seizing with both hands. Last month, Moscow signed a deal to supply India, a valuable trading partner, with 100 million doses of Sputnik V.

At the same time, the UAE became the first country outside China to approve a vaccine made by that nation’s state-run pharmaceutical group. And Beijing is hoping to mend old rifts and make new friends by offering vaccines to its neighbours in the disputed South China Sea region.

So, is liberal democracy going to be the biggest Covid victim?

Need for speed

Yes, say some. For now, Russia and China are winning the race for a vaccine – and they are using their successes as proof that their authoritarian systems are superior to Western democracies. Coming out of lockdown a year ahead of the West would give them time to shift the balance of wealth and power back to the East. With liberal democracies already struggling, this could be a decisive moment.

No, say others. Moscow may have dismissed safety concerns as “jealousy”, but the truth is they are playing a risky game. If their immunisations prove to be dangerous, then Russia and China could find that their hasty vaccine roll-outs backfire. And they may have got a head start, but the West is not far behind – British scientists believe they could have data from final-stage trials by December.

You Decide

  1. Should vaccination be compulsory for everyone?
  2. Do Russia and China pose the biggest threat to Western democracies?


  1. Imagine you are the first person to receive a new Covid-19 vaccine in your country. Write a diary entry describing how it feels to be part of such a historic moment.
  2. Design a leaflet encouraging people to get vaccinated to end the lockdown. How will you persuade them?

Some People Say...

“In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

Sir William Osler (1849–1919), Canadian doctor and teacher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the relationship between the West and Russia and China has deteriorated in recent years. Just this week, spy chief Ken McCallum, the head of the British intelligence service MI5, warned that the countries were together the biggest single threat facing the UK. Relations soured after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and then poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal in the UK last year, while the West has condemned new Chinese security laws in Hong Kong.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the timeline for the roll-out of any successful vaccine. Initial supplies are likely to be limited, and so many countries may choose to prioritise key workers or vulnerable groups. There are concerns that when a vaccine is available, some may refuse to take it: a September poll found that only 50% of Americans would take an approved vaccine available right now. And there is still a lot scientists do not know – including how long people will stay immune.

Word Watch

Sputnik V
The vaccine is named after the Sputnik satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. The launch gave the USSR an early lead in the space race, the 20th- century competition between the US and the USSR to explore space.
From a Russian word meaning “citadel”, the Kremlin is a fortified complex in central Moscow and the official home of the Russian president.
Vaccinated. China is distributing experimental vaccines to students, diplomats and people travelling abroad.
François Heisbourg
The French diplomat is a senior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Stealing research
The FBI has warned the University of North Carolina that Chinese hacking teams are trying to break into their networks. And British spy agency GCHQ caught hacking group Cozy Bear, which is affiliated to Russia’s intelligence service, trying to gain information about the UK’s Oxford University vaccine.
New space race
Sputnik V is not the only reference to the space race. The US has named their project to deliver a vaccine Operation Warp Speed – a reference to Star Trek.
Unexplained illnesses
Trials of vaccines made by AstraZeneca with Oxford University and Johnson & Johnson were halted over safety concerns. The Oxford vaccine trials have since resumed in the UK.
To improve public confidence, United Arab Emirates Minister of Health Abdulrahman al-Owais posted photos of himself getting the jab.
South China Sea
China claims almost all of the sea as part of its territory, but this is contested by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, among others. Now China has promised to give the Philippines priority access to its vaccines.


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