Russia and China’s global vaccine race and Korean cat coronavirus tests

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our lives. Below are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

The EU is now admitting its vaccination failures. The president of the European Commission has said the bloc has underestimated difficulties of production, was “too late to authorize” vaccines and too optimistic about the timeline of the rollout for the EU’s 450 million citizens. Public health aside, these delays have an additional geopolitical price tag. 

Hungary is striking out on its own using an emergency decree to fast-track approvals for both the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines. The first EU leader to approve both inoculations, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has his eye on elections in spring 2022, hoping that a Russian and Chinese-enabled vaccination blitz will allow him to reopen the economy. Orban promised that “the vaccine is not a political issue,” but the speedy approvals tie in with his general euroskepticism and efforts to strengthen ties with Russia and China. 

After a “scouting” trip to Hungary, Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic may follow Orban’s lead in certifying Sputnik V, ahead of approval from the European Medicines Agency. During the visit, Orban addressed Babis directly in a speech, advising him to bypass the EU, saying “We cannot wait for Brussels.

In Lithuania, PM Ingrida Simonyte promised not to use the Russian vaccine, saying that Sputnik V is a geopolitical tool for Russia and that it is “extremely unfortunate” that some EU members are certifying the vaccine (link in Lithuanian).

Latin America is another frontline of the Sino-Russian vaccine race. Mexico and Argentina are among the countries already using Sputnik V, and Venezuela is also expecting a shipment. Peru, meanwhile, is opting for the Chinese shot. Still, the governor of the Arequipa region, who wrote to Putin last July to ask him for 100,000 vaccines, is not giving up. After Peru’s national government decided to go with China, Governor Elmer Cáceres held a video conference with a group of intermediary businessmen offering to bring Sputnik V into the country.  He also assured them that ice cream vendors’ tricycles would be made available to deliver the vaccine to his region’s most far-flung corners. “I was ridiculed and criticized, but we have persisted to show that the Russian vaccine is one of the best in the world,” Cáceres said. Cáceres has made headlines before, telling Peruvians that eating llama meat and drinking chlorine would prevent Covid-19.

After months of trying to navigate U.S. sanctions to access vaccines, Iran has now begun to roll out Sputnik V. The country is home to the Middle East’s worst Covid 19 outbreak, but says sanctions have hampered its ability to buy medicines through the COVAX scheme. Now Tehran has announced plans to start manufacturing Sputnik V. Speaking at the virtual ceremony marking the 42nd anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the nation’s ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali announced that a delegation of 10 Iranian pharmaceutical officials have already visited Russia to monitor the manufacturing process. The head of the Iran Food and Drug Administration confirmed the deal, which he described as “a win-win game” and the beginning of an exciting new relationship between the two countries. Iranian state media is already talking about the country becoming a “hub”  for other Russian drugs. 

Distrust in the Russian vaccine is rife on Iranian Telegram groups. Last week, it was ramped up by an interview aired on BBC Persian, during which Noraladin Pirmoazzen, a surgeon and former lawmaker, attacked both Sputnik V and Pfizer’s vaccines, saying that it takes a minimum of four years to produce a safe immunization. This false claim is a favorite among anti-vaxxers and, in a country that is not getting any Pfizer vaccines, it is turning people against Sputnik V. A peer-reviewed study in the Lancet  last week shows that, despite Russia’s corner-cutting and lack of transparency, the shot appears to be safe and effective. 

Have you tested your pets for the coronavirus? If you live in South Korea, you can. Seoul’s local government is offering Covid-19 tests for dogs and cats that have been exposed to infected people and are showing symptoms including fever, coughing or breathing difficulties. The program comes after a kitten contracted the virus last month — the first reported case in animals in the country. Pets that test positive have to be isolated at home or, if their owners cannot take care of them, be sent to government-run facilities. The South Korean kitten is not the first animal to contract the virus. Though a relatively rare occurrence, pets around the world have been infected, as have lions and tigers in zoos.

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As always, we are tracking this and more at and on our Coda Currents weekly podcast. 

Have a great weekend and see you next Friday,
Natalia Antelava