Weekly 8 November 2020

Production problems hamper Russian vaccine roll-out

Hello! This week our top story is about the difficulties plaguing Russia’s attempt to roll out a mass coronavirus vaccination programme. We also look at how Kremlin propaganda is spinning the U.S. presidential election, and why you should be skeptical about oddly-sourced stories alleging Putin is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Production problems hamper Russian vaccine roll-out

Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, which President Vladimir Putin proudly hailed as the first in the world, looks increasingly like it has a long way to go before becoming widely available. We reported this week that manufacturers have not yet found a way to mass produce it.

What did the Russian authorities promise?

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko assured Putin in September that the Sputnik V vaccine, Russia’s ‘first-in-the-world’ coronavirus vaccine, was ready for mass production. In contrast to much of Europe, Russia is trying to avoid another lockdown, despite a record-breaking second wave of coronavirus infections. The only alternative is a mass vaccination program.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged Muscovites to stay at home last month, adding that it would be a wait of just a few months until the vaccine was ready. Last week, City Hall said they were ready to begin mass vaccination, but admitted they did not have enough vaccine.

At the ‘Russia Calling’ business forum last week, Putin let slip that things weren’t going to plan. “There are certain problems associated with the availability or otherwise of a certain amount of equipment… to enable mass production,” he said in an online address.

What went wrong?

Four large Russian pharmaceutical companies are tasked with the production of Sputnik V: R-Pharm, BinnoPharm, Generium and Biokad. But none of them have managed to set up a mass production line, industry sources told The Bell. “We can’t achieve a stable vaccine and nor can anyone else,” explained the co-owner of one of these companies.

“When we have a stable vaccine, we know that every dose is correct, every dose is the same. But that’s not easy to achieve,” according to Anton Gopka, co-founder of ATEM Capital, a venture capital fund that invests in high-tech companies connected with biotechnology, medical equipment and molecular diagnosis in the U.S. and Europe.

The problem is that, at first, vaccines are produced in small quantities and then the process has to be scaled up. For mass production, it’s essential to ‘debug’ that scaling-up process – and a well-connected source told The Bell that this is an issue. According to him, attempts keep failing. In addition, batches of the vaccine often struggle to meet quality controls.

Such complex biotechnology requires calibration that’s impossible to do in advance. There’s an element of trial and error in finding the right process, Gopka explained. “Usually it would take a year to set up production on this scale, but we’re trying to do it in weeks,” he added.

Manufacturers are promising to have the vaccine ready by the end of this month, but it’s not clear when there will be enough for everyone. A mass vaccination programme certainly will not be possible by the end of the year – not even in Moscow. “The volume of vaccine being produced isn’t our problem,” a Moscow official snapped during a conversation with The Bell.

How much do we need?

“The usual expectation is that half the population needs to be vaccinated,” said Anton Gopka. Although he admitted that in this case it might be possible to get away with less. Even so, we are talking about tens of millions of doses every month.

How much can realistically be produced?

Back in the summer, executives at the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is financing vaccine production, claimed Russia would produce 30 million doses for domestic consumption by the end of the year. But in mid-October, Industry Minister Denis Manturov told Bloomberg this promise was nonsense. “Right now, the task is to scale up production,” he said. “There’s no way we can have 30 million doses by the end of the year.”

“ Russia might be able to deliver about 7-10 million doses in December, and even the most conservative predictwe will get there [to 30 million] in January,” an RDIF official told The Bell.

But we were unable to find any independent confirmation for this prognosis. The Bell approached each of the companies that are currently struggling to scale-up vaccine production — but none of them could confirm they were ready to start producing the millions of doses needed for a mass immunization program. By the end of the year, Russia will have hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses, but not a million, according to all of these companies.

Why the world should care

Russian officials originally hailed the development of a coronavirus vaccine as a technological  breakthrough akin to sending the first human into space. But, in reality, everything is proving much harder — there is still no simple answer to coronavirus in Russia, or anywhere else.

How Russian propaganda is exploiting the U.S. elections

Russia, like the rest of the world, has followed the U.S. presidential election all week. Even though Putin is already planning for a Joe Biden victory, Donald Trump managed to do one last favor for the Kremlin. As his supporters throw around allegations of election fraud, Russia’s state media has been reprising one of its favorite topics – America’s rigged voting system.

  • According to an opinion poll, 53 percent of Russians are tracking the U.S. elections. That’s a third more than followed last year’s vote in neighboring Ukraine. As many as 26 percent of those surveyed believed Trump would win a second term, while only 9 percent expected Biden to triumph. However, neither candidate is much loved: 38 percent dislike Trump and 34 percent have little time for Biden.
  • Russian state media was not about to pass up the chance to make the most of the protracted wait. At least half the reports on state-run TV channel Rossiya-24 are about fraud, ‘media censorship’ and the threat of violence. “The highest turnout in 120 years of American elections, and seemingly the most fake,” began one typical report.
  • Margarita Simonyan, director of state-owned network RT, outlined the Kremlin’s view: “multiple violations, no foreign observers, a lack of transparency amid complex electoral legislation, the obvious bias of the overwhelming majority of the media, censorship on major media platforms and inevitable public protest.”
  • Fraud conducted by the Biden campaign is the main talking point for the pro-Kremlin blogosphere, especially on messaging app Telegram. One of most popular images being shared was a graph from Wisconsin showing Biden’s share of the vote shooting up after a large number of absentee ballots from Milwaukee were processed.

  • There’s a reason why Russian state-owned media fixated on this image. It’s mostly because one way the Russian opposition exposes widespread electoral fraud (which, in contrast with the U.S., does take place in Russia) is via graphs that show the normal mathematical distribution of votes and how they differ to the official figures. It’s a rare win for Russia’s propagandists: even though Russian and U.S. graphs deal with completely different data, state media will be forever able to point to U.S. election ‘anomalies’. This, in turn, reinforces the Kremlin’s favorite — albeit unstated — idea: Russia’s elections are unfair, but so are everyone else’s; the rest of the world just fakes it better.

Why the world should care

The U.S. electoral system is — once again — providing fodder for Kremlin managers to highlight the flaws in democratic systems worldwide, and legitimize its own politics.

Is a Russian ‘political scientist’ talking about Putin’s ill health to be trusted?

Moscow-based political scientist Valery Solovei hit the headlines Friday, telling British tabloid The Sun that Putin is ill and will soon step down. Alina Kabaeva, who is rumored to be his current partner, and two of his children are said to be actively encouraging him to retire. The article drew a denial from Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. The information is, of course, completely untrustworthy, but Solovei is an interesting character.

  • Solovei was interviewed by The Sun, and the story was carried by another tabloid owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the New York Post. But the story was also taken up by more reputable publications, such as Reuters. Solovei said that he had information that Putin was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and his family was urging him to stand down. Apparently, Putin will soon name a new prime minister who will become his successor.
  • Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, commented on The Sun’s story Friday. “It’s complete nonsense,” he said. “The president is doing fine. He’s in excellent health.”
  • Rumors of Putin’s being sick are a staple of the political rumor mill in Russia. For decades, there have been viral posts about his imminent death. On one occasion, in 2014, these rumors were reported by the New York Post. Despite all this, it’s rare to hear a well-known figure like Solovei giving airtime to theories about the president’s health.
  • Solovei is a professor at the Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO), long a training ground for spies and diplomats. He first became known in 2016. Back then he correctly predicted that Anton Vaino would succeed the outgoing head of the presidential administration, Sergei Ivanov (at that moment, Vaino was almost completely unknown). Ever since, Solovei has been a regular political commentator for Ekho Moskvy radio station, and is a sought-after public speaker.
  • None of Solovei’s subsequent predictions have come to pass (they are almost all about the imminent demise of the Putin regime). But some Russians critical of Putin believe there is something significant about a political scientist who tells them what they want to hear, and they hope he has some kind of ‘inside information’. Professional journalists and political scientists, however, regard him as a charlatan.
  • Many even suspect Solovei of working for the security services. There are several reasons for this suspicion, beginning with the fact that MGIMO, where Solovei works, was heavily infiltrated by the KGB in Soviet times. He was most recently accused of being a secret agent in September, when he announced an unauthorized rally in support of protestors in the Far East. Solovei was briefly detained, then let go. The political scientist claimed his release was ordered by Putin, and later added he was part of a “powerful international NGO”. This kind of nonsense reinforces the idea that Solovei is a stooge, used to manipulate opposition idealists and spread disinformation.

Why the world should care

There are a number of reasons why rumors about Putin’s ill health would be circulated by an FSB agent. One explanation could be a desire to see how the West reacts. Disinformation and trolling are two of the Kremlin’s favorite weapons — this should always be kept in mind.