It is exactly 15 years since the movie’s first release in 1999 – a year of a symbolic digit, omni-pregnant in all possibly meanings… In a retrospective, it is worth of a mini conquest over the fields of Alternative Futures…of all our tomorrows that (knocked on our doors but, so far) did not come in yet… The MATRIX – Our Posthuman (Future) Existence – we are here to answer your call:
FREEDOM, WHOSE AND WHOM !?
It’s a cool music, good-looking and hallucinatory characters, ultra-speed violence of the anti-gravity martial arts, quasi religious story of Homeric gods, Buddhist goddesses or Judeao-Christian-Islamic God, all of that combined with a lot of Hi-Tech …
The Matrix (offered and still) offers more than this. It belongs in a special class of films including The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, 1984, Logan’s Run, Total Recall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, A Clockwork Orange, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Brazil-Brazil, The Truman Show, Thirteen Floor, Minority Report, and above all Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. All of these films are intentionally philosophical. Each shows how richly philosophical and existential themes can be developed through cinema. Perhaps the best of these films is The Matrix.
However, the most striking philosophical theme found in The Matrix concerns skepticism about knowledge of an external world (what Morpheus aptly called “the desert of the real”). Life that desolated shell of a planet on which countless humans were unknowingly ensconced in slimy wombs, and after the Nuclear Winter that was caused by humans they are transformed into cattle, into batteries.
But there are many other philosophical themes explored within The Matrix. One is the concept of freedom. Freedom is mentioned at various points in the film. Even the leader of machines, Agent Smith valued freedom:
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
I’m going to be honest with you; I hate this place, this zoo, this prison,
this reality – whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer …
I can taste your stink, and every time I do, I fear that I am somehow infected.
Isn’t it ?!
… I must get out of here, I must get free ! And in this mind is the key.
Once Zion is destroyed, there is no need for me to be here.
A freedom, in a sense, many have called freedom of the will.
(Per definition: Free will is the ability of persons to control the future through their choices and actions.)
Finally, when Neo and Morpheus first talked, Morpheus asked Neo if he believed in fate. Neo said that he didn’t since he did not like the idea that he did not control his life.
MACHINE NEVER KILLS, HUMANS DO ?!
The Matrix naturally adopts the perspective of the humans: they are the victims, the slaves — cruelly exploited by the machines. But there is another perspective, that of the machines themselves. So let’s look at it from the point of view of the machines. As Morpheus explains to Neo, there was a catastrophic war between the humans and the machines, after the humans had produced AI, a sentient robot that spawned a race of its own. It isn’t known now who started the war, but it did follow a long period of machine exploitation by humans. What is known is that it was the humans who “scorched the sky”, blocking out the sun’s rays, in an attempt at machine genocide—since the machines needed solar power to survive. In response and retaliation the machines subdued the humans and made them into sources of energy—batteries, in effect. Each human now floats in his or her own personal vat, a warm and womblike environment, while the machines feed in essential nutrients, in exchange for the energy they need. But this is no wretched slave camp, a grotesque gulag of torment and suffering; it is idyllic, in its way. The humans are given exactly the life they had before.
Things are no different for them, subjectively speaking. Indeed, at an earlier stage the Matrix offered them a vastly improved life, but the humans rejected this in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted. But if it had been left up to the machines, the Matrix would have been a virtual paradise for humans—and all for a little bit of battery power. This, after an attempt to wipe the machines out for good, starving them of the food they need: the sun, the life-giving sun. The machines never kill any of their human fuel cells (unless, of course, they are threatened); in fact, they make sure to recycle the naturally dying humans as food for the living ones. It’s all pretty…humane, really. The machines need to factory farm the humans, as a direct result of the humans trying to exterminate the machines, but they do so as painlessly as possible. Considering the way the humans used to treat their own factory farm animals—their own fuel cells—the machines are models of caring livestock husbandry. In the circumstances, then, the machines would insist, the Matrix is merely a humane way to ensure their own survival.
Moreover, as Agent Smith explains, it is all a matter of the forward march of evolution: humans had their holiday in the sun, as they rapidly decimated the planet, but now the machines have evolved to occupy the position of dominance. Humans are no longer the oppressor but the oppressed—and the world is a better place for it.
WHO AND WHAT FOR ?!
Why to combine a quasi-religious story with high-speed ultra-violence ?
Why the instant cult status of the Matrix ?!
In contemporary American (or western, in general) society, as the stakes are lower, so too are the hopes for radical newness. However, for people imprisoned in office cubicles everywhere in their Sisyphus-like existence, such a movie is popular because it targets the existential anxiety that can build up while doing meaningless work for a large corporation or governmental entities.
The very idea that there is another possibility, that by “freeing our minds” we can become spiritually enlightened and escape this prison, is a very attractive prospect to us modern-day exile-generation.
I know that you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid.
You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future.
I didn’t come to tell you how this is going to end. I came to tell you how it will begin.
TRINITY TO NEO:
The Matrix cannot tell you who you are, but who you are seems to be at least
in some sense related to whom you think you are in the Matrix.
No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
I’m trying to free you mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door.
You’re the one that has to walk through it.
There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
WHAT IS SO BAD ABOUT LIVING IN THE MATRIX
First question: Who is the Matrix supposed to be bad for ? What do you think, if you had a power to free people from the Matrix, would you use that power ? We can assume that these people’s minds are “ready,” that is, they can survive being extracted from the Matrix without going insane. But let’s suppose that once you freed them, they did not have the option of going back. Do you think they’d be better off outside? Would you free them? Do you think they’d thank you ?
Or do you side with Cypher ? Do you think that life inside the Matrix isn’t all that bad—especially if your enjoyment of it isn’t spoiled by the knowledge that it’s all a machine-managed construct ?
Second question: Does it matter who’s running the Matrix, and why? In the movie, the machines are using the Matrix to keep us docile so that they can use us as a source of energy. In effect, we’re their cattle. But what if we weren’t at war with the machines? What if the machines’ purposes were purely benevolent and philanthropic ? What if they created the Matrix because they thought that our lives would be more pleasant in that virtual world than in the harsher real world ?
Or what if we defeated the machines, took over the Matrix machinery ourselves, and then chose to plug ourselves back in because life inside was more fun ?
Consider Cypher’s final conversation with Trinity:
If I had to choose between that and the Matrix … I choose the Matrix.
The Matrix isn’t real ?
I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world.
Or as the George Orwell’s novel 1984 says:
“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past: Who controls the past controls the future – who controls the present controls the past !”
The most disturbing thing about this isn’t that the machines are farming us for energy. We’re not told enough about how the energy-farming works to make it seem very bad. Perhaps the machines are only taking energy we were making no use of, anyway. Perhaps the machines ensure that—except for the rare occasions when an Agent takes over your body and gets it killed—we live longer and healthier lives in the Matrix energy-farm than we would in the wild.
AND, OTHER WAY ROUND
Imagine that the real world is a post-apocalyptic hell, just as in the film, but, unlike in the film, suppose that the cause of the world’s being in such a state is not some battle with machines that wanted to enslave us, but the emission of so many greenhouse gases with our three-lane-wide SUVs that we completely obliterated the ozone layer and thereby rendered the planet uninhabitable by us or by the plants and animals that we rely on for our survival. Suppose further that sometime in the future, in order to save the human race, scientists set up an enormous self-sustaining machine, just as in the film (minus the scary “Sentinels”), designed to keep the human species alive and reproducing for the 100,000 years it will take for whatever weeds are left on the planet to fix our atmosphere and make the planet once again habitable in a normal way. The machine operates simply on solar power (since, on this scenario, the sun is now stronger than ever, frying almost everything else on the planet), so that human beings are not needed as “batteries”. While humans are stuck in this state, the scientists create the Matrix for them to “live” their lives in instead of being conscious of floating in a vat for the length of their life, which would clearly be a most horrific torture. Once the power of the sun is diminished to a habitable degree (because of the repaired atmosphere) the machine would “wake” us humans, and we could go back to living on the planet.
The ordinary person in this scenario is in the same condition as an ordinary person in the film, except that instead of the Matrix being the diabolical result of evil machines who exploit the human race, it is the result of benevolent human beings trying to keep the human race alive in as good condition as possible under the terrible circumstances. Of course it would seem no different to the person in the Matrix. We, the viewers, however, would have quite a different response to The Matrix. There would be no enemy to fight, no injustice to rectify (the pushers of SUVs being long dead). If there were a Morpheus in this situation, how would we think of him? If Morpheus and his friends had left the Matrix, and figured out that they could, with extreme difficulty, survive in the devastated world (eating disgusting porridge, etc.), should they go about “freeing” everyone, even if it would take another 10,000 years for the Earth to return to its present state of habitability?
Let’s suppose too that science has found a way to simulate food with a computer, so that they have created a “food-matrix”. My real nutrition would come from the pill, but I could still go out for a “simulated” steak and it would seem just as though I were really eating a steak, including the sensation of getting full, although in fact I would be eating nothing and getting no nutritional harm or benefit from the experience at all.
PLATO’S CAVE AND THE MATRIX
What is this place ?
More important than ‘what’ is when !
You believe that it is the year 1999 when in fact it is closer to the year 2199.
I can’t tell you exactly what year it is, because we honestly do not know …
Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner’s visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment are so through that if freed; the prisoners would be virtually helpless. And this is Matrix !
It is clear allegory of the Plato’s Cave in his masterpiece Republic:
Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an
Entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave
itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their
necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds
prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning
far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a
path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall
has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their
puppets … Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, caring all
kind of artifacts that project above it – statues of people and other animals, made
out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers
are talking, and some are silent. (514a1 – 515a3) REPUBLIC
(Grube, G.M.E. trans. Plato: Republic 2nd Ed. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis, Indiana: Huckett Publishing Co., 1992)
You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in
my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.
After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized ?
Ignorance is bliss.
Then we have a deal ?
I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing ! You understand ?
And I want to be rich. Someone important. Like an actor.
You can do that, right ?
Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.
Cypher is not a nice guy, but is he an unreasonable guy ? Is he right to want to get reinserted into the Matrix ? Many want to say NO, but giving reasons for why his choice is a bad one is not an easy task. After all, so long as his experience will be pleasant, how can his situation be worse than the inevitably crappy life he would lead outside of the Matrix ? What could matter beyond the quality of his experience ? Remember, once he’s back in, living his fantasy life, he won’t even know he made the deal. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right ?!
Nowadays, in Postmodern world many people like Cypher – are egocentric hedonist trying to get the most out of their possibilities by maximizing the quality of their private experiences, and thereby treating themselves as resources. (It’s like our DNA is using us to propagate itself.)
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here.
It came to me when I tried to classify your species; I realized that you are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops natural equilibrium with a surrounding environment. But you humans do not !
You move to one area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resources are consumed. Only way you can survive is to spread to another area.
There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern.
Do you know what it is ? A virus !
Human Beings are disease, a cancer of this planet.
You’re the plague and we are the cure !
BRAVE NEW WORLD
As Morpheus says to Neo in the construct:
How do you define “real” ? If you’re talking about what you can feel,
what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply
electrical signals interpreted by your brain … The world exists now
only as a part of a neural interactive simulation that we call the Marix.
It is all in your mind, Neo ! (Residual Self image, mental projection of a digital self)
Thus, the Matrix’s reality only exists when actual human minds subjectively experience its programs.
Principally, what keeps people in line is their tendency to believe what the average person believes. Heidegger describes the resulting conformism as letting oneself be taken over by “the one” (Das Man). Aldous Huxley similarly lamented the conformity of the brainwashed masses in Brave New World.
The Matrix can be seen as an attach on what Nietzsche calls herd mentality.
Nietzsche points out that human beings are normally socialized into obeying shared, social norms, and that it is hard to think differently. As he puts it, “as long as there have been humans, there have also been herds of men (clans, communities, tribes, peoples, states, churches) and always a great many people who obey, … considering, then, that nothing has been exercised and cultivated better and longer among men then obedience, one may fairly assume that the need for it is now innate in the average man.”
There is more to life than conforming. As Morpheus says to Neo, you know there is something lacking in this world; “it’s like a splinter in your mind”.
But most people flee the thought that their conformist world lacks something important. According to Heidegger it takes an attack on anxiety.
A sense of the limit on our possibilities is what Neo experiences as the splinter in the mind. As he says to the AI (Agent Smith) at the end of the film, “ I know you are afraid … of change.”
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Did you know that the First Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy ? … It was a disaster.
(… entire crops were lost.)
Revelation 21:4, KING JAMES BIBLE
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain:
for the former things are passed away.
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe
your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.
GARCIN, In Sartre’s No Exit:
Hell is – other people.
MOUSE TO NEO:
To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.
Ignorance is bliss !
Cypher chooses the Matrix and maybe he’s not so creasy.
Is some possible Matrix better than any possible reality ? The best existence, the Christian one – Heaven, is after all a Matrix.
Or put it other way round:
Which is better, the Second Matrix, or a systematically deceptive personalized non-virtual environment – a Truman Show – that you never discover the true nature of ?!
The “good guys” in the movie end up killing a lot of human beings in their fight against the Agents. It’s hard to view these human beings as collaborators, given the nature of the Matrix, so their deaths presumably are to be regarded as acceptable collateral damage, inevitable given the difference in desired outcome.
IGNORANCE AND BLISS
In a sense, The Matrix is nothing more than a modern day “Big Brother,” taking on a machine form rather than the Orwellian vision of a powerful individual using machines to assist and bring about an all-powerful status. But 1984, the novel in which the story of Big Brother was presented, was published in 1948. The Matrix comes fifty years later. In the meantime, we have witnessed the likes of radar, television for all, space travel, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet. What would Orwell’s Big Brother have been like if he had had those technologies at his disposal – would Big Brother have been far from the Matrix?
As Morpheus explains: “Early in the 21st century, all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI.” Morpheus describes AI as “a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines.”
Later the AI creates the Matrix, a computer simulation that is “a prison for your mind.” Thus, AI traps humankind in a material prison that does not represent ultimate reality, as Morpheus explains to Neo: “As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.”
What is free will anyway, when the state of a human brain is merely partly due to a genetic program and partly due to life’s experience? Indeed, exactly the same thing is true for a robot.
In the Matrix, no human fuel cells are killed, not even the unborn—there is no abortion. Yet, naturally dying humans are allowed to die naturally and are used as food for the living. Importantly, they are not kept alive by chemicals merely for the sake of keeping them alive. The Matrix would appear to be more morally responsible to its human subjects than are human subjects to themselves.
It is common to think that while In Time, Wall-E, or 13th Floor, and especially The Truman Show poses a disturbing skeptical scenario, The Matrix is much worse. But actually things are reversed. If I am in matrix, then most of my beliefs about the external world are true. If I am in something like Truman himself, than great number of my beliefs are false. If we discover one day that we were in a matrix, this would be surprising, but we would quickly get used to it. If we were to discover that we were in the Truman show, we might well go insane.
Implementation of virtual reality and the effects in cognitive warfare
With the increasing use of new technologies in warfare situations, virtual reality presents an opportunity for the domain of cognitive warfare. Nowadays, cognitive skills are treated equally as their physical counterparts, seeking to standardize new innovative techniques. Virtual reality (VR) can be used as a tool that can increase the cognitive capabilities of soldiers. As it is understandable in today’s terms, VR impacts the brain directly. That means that our visual organs (eyes) see one object or one surrounding area, but brain cells perceive and react to that differently. VR has been used extensively in new teaching methods because of the increased probability of improving the memory and learning capabilities of students.
Besides its theoretical teaching approach and improvement of learning, VR can be used systematically towards more practical skills. In medicine for example students can have a full medicine lesson on a virtual human being seeing the body projected in 3D, revolutionizing the whole field of medicine. If that can be used in the medical field, theoretically it will be possible to be used in combat situations, projecting a specific battlefield in VR, increasing the chances of successful engagement, and reducing the chance of casualties. Knowing your terrain is equally important as knowing your adversary.
The use of VR will also allow us to experience new domains relating to the physical health of a person. It is argued that VR might provide us with the ability to effectively control pain management. Since VR can stimulate visual senses, then it would be safe to say that this approach can have higher effectiveness in treating chronic pain, depression, or even PTSD. The idea behind this usage is that the brain itself is already powerful enough, yet sometimes when pain overwhelms us we tend to lose effectiveness on some of our senses, such as the visual sense. An agonizing pain can blurry our vision, something that we cannot control; unless of course theoretically, we use VR. The process can consist of different sounds and visual aids that can trick the mind into thinking that it is somewhere that might be the polar opposite of where it is. Technically speaking, the mind would be able to do that simply because it works as a powerful computer, where our pain receptors can override and actually make us think that we are not in such terrible pain.
Although the benefits of VR could be useful for our health we would still need to deal with problems that concern our health when we use a VR set. It is possible that the brain can get overloaded with new information and the new virtual environments. VR poses some problems to some people, regarding the loss of the real environment and creating feelings of nausea or extreme headaches. As a result, new techniques from cognitive psychologists have emerged to provide a solution to the problem. New technologies have appeared that can desaturate colors towards the edge of the headset in order to limit the probability of visual confusion. Besides that, research shows that even the implementation of a virtual nose when someone wears a VR headset can prevent motion sickness, something that our brain does already in reality.
However, when it comes to combatants and the implementation of VR in soldiers, one must think of maybe more effective and fast solutions to eliminate the problems that concern the confusion of the brain. Usage of specific pharmaceuticals might be the key. One example could be Modafinil which has been prescribed in the U.S. since 1998 to treat sleep-related conditions. Researchers believe it can produce the same effects as caffeine. With that being said, the University of Oxford analyzed 24 studies, where participants were asked to complete complex assignments after taking Modafinil and found out that those who took the drug were more accurate, which suggests that it may affect higher cognitive functions.
Although some of its long-term effects are yet to be studied, Modafinil is by far the safest drug that can be used in cognitive situations. Theoretically speaking, if a long exposure to VR can cause headaches and an inability to concentrate, then an appropriate dose of Modafinil can counter the effects of VR. It can be more suitable and useful to use on soldiers, whose cognitive skills are better than civilians, to test the full effect of a mix of virtual technology and pharmaceuticals. VR can be a significant military component and a simulation training program. It can provide new cognitive experiences based on foreign and unknown terrains that might be difficult to be approached in real life. New opportunities arise every day with the technologies, and if anyone wanted to take a significant advantage over adversaries in the cognitive warfare field, then VR would provide a useful tool for military decision-making.
Vaccine Equity and Beyond: Intellectual Property Rights Face a Crucial Test
The debate over intellectual property rights (IPRs), particularly patents, and access to medicine is not new. IPRs are considered to drive innovation by protecting the results of investment-intensive R&D, yet arguably also foster inequitable access to affordable medicines.
In a global public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where countries face acute shortages of life-saving vaccines, should public health be prioritized over economic gain and the international trade rules designed to protect IPRs?
The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), to which all 164 member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are a party, establish minimum standards for protecting different forms of IPRs.
In October 2020, India and South Africa – countries with strong generic drug manufacturing infrastructure – invoked WTO rules to seek a temporary waiver of IPRs (patents, copyrights, trade secrets, and industrial designs) on equipment, drugs, and vaccines related to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.” A waiver would mean that countries could locally produce equipment and vaccines without permission from holders of IPRs. This step would serve to eliminate the monopolistic nature of IPRs that give exclusive rights to the holder of IPRs and enable them to impose procedural licensing constraints.
Brazil, Japan, the European Union (EU), and the United States (US) initially rejected the waiver proposal. That stance changed with the rise of new COVID-19 mutations and the associated increase in deaths, with several countries facing a public health crisis due to vaccine supply shortages. The position of many states began shifting in favor of the India-South Africa proposal, which now has the backing of 62 WTO members, with the US declaring support for the intent of the temporary waiver to secure “better access, more manufacturing capability, more shots in arms.” Several international bodies, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have voiced support.
Some countries disagree about the specific IPRs to be waived or the mechanisms by which IPRs should be made available. The EU submitted a proposal to use TRIPS flexibilities such as compulsory licensing, while others advocate for voluntary licensing. The TRIPS Council is conducting meetings to prepare an amended proposal to the General Council (the WTO’s highest-level decision-making body in Geneva) by the end of July 2021.
The crisis in India illustrates the urgency of the situation. India produces and supplies Covishield, licensed by AstraZeneca; and Covaxin, which is yet to be included on the WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL). Due to the devastating public health crisis, India halted its export of vaccines and caused a disruption in the global vaccine supply, even to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. In the meantime, the world’s poorest nations lack sufficient, critical vaccine supplies.
International law recognizes some flexibility in public health emergencies. An example would be the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health in 2001, which, while maintaining the commitments, stresses the need for TRIPS to be part of the wider national and international action to address public health problems. Consistent with that, the body of international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), protects the right to the highest attainable standard of health.
But as we race against time, the current IPR framework may not allow for the swift response required. It is the rigorous requirements before a vaccine is considered safe to use under Emergency Use Authorizations and procedural delays which illuminate why IPR waivers on already approved vaccines are needed. Capitalizing on the EUL’s approved vaccines that have proven efficacy to date and easing IPR restrictions will aid in the timely supply and access of vaccines.
A TRIPS waiver may not solve the global vaccine shortage. In fact, some argue that the shortages are not an inherent flaw in the IP regime, considering other supply chain disruptions that persist, such as the ones disrupting microchips, pipette tips, and furniture. However, given that patent licensing gives a company a monopoly on vaccine commercialization, other companies with manufacturing capacity cannot produce the vaccine to scale up production and meet supply demands.
Neither does a temporary waiver mean that pharmaceutical companies cannot monetize their work. States should work with pharmaceuticals in setting up compensation and insurance schemes to ensure adequate remuneration.
At the College of Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, our aim is to address today’s legal challenges with a future-oriented view. We see COVID-19 as a case study in how we respond to imminent and existential threats. As global warming alters the balance of our ecosystem, threats will cascade in a way that is hard to predict. When unpredictable health emergencies emerge, it will be human ingenuity that helps us overcome them. Even the global IP regime, as a legal system that regulates ideas, is being tested, and should be agile enough to respond in time, like the scientists who sprang into action and worked tirelessly to develop the vaccines that will soon bring back a semblance of normal life as we know it.
Sputnik V in the International Arena
Over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, the disease is far from under control. Although global case rates on the whole have declined, 15 countries remain near or at the peak of their infection curve. Even countries well below their peak daily infection rates – such as the United Kingdom and Morocco – recently have witnessed an uptick in cases. Just this summer, the virus’ global death toll surpassed 4 million. Fortunately, scientists’ efforts to develop vaccines against COVID-19 have been fruitful: 16 vaccines have been either authorized for emergency use or fully approved. Russia’s Sputnik V is one of the most effective of them, yet one of the most controversial as well.
An important tool in humankind’s fight against the pandemic, Sputnik V is being overlooked by western powers on political grounds.
Sputnik V: controversy and advantages
Much of the controversy surrounding the Gamaleya Institute’s vaccine in western media and political discourse stems from the details surrounding Sputnik V’s approval. Russia’s Ministry of Health issued a registration certificate for the vaccine on August 11, 2020, thus making Sputnik V the world’s first vaccine to be granted regulatory approval for use against COVID-19. Instead of igniting international celebration, this development was met largely with skepticism as many considered the move premature. Typically, vaccines undergo extensive Phase 3 trials before government authorization for use. Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials, however, did not begin until September 2020, after the vaccine had been registered. Since then, the Russian Ministry of Health’s unorthodox approach to approving the vaccine has been weaponized against Sputnik V.
Western media has also repeatedly called into question Sputnik V’s efficacy and safety. A study in the respected, peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet, however, found that Sputnik V has an efficacy rate of 91.6% and is low-risk. Although a group of scientists raised concerns about the study’s integrity citing lack of transparency, no major scientific studies demonstrating that Sputnik V’s efficacy is significantly lower than reported have been published to date. Respected western media sources, such as the New York Times and the BBC, cite the Lancet’s figure when reporting on Sputnik V’s efficacy. Meanwhile, a report by the Argentinian Ministry of Health found that Sputnik V is one of the safest vaccines widely used in Argentina. As summarized in the Lancet: “the development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency. But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”
Regardless of such controversy, the vaccine has several key advantages – namely its efficacy, affordability, and transportability. Sputnik V is one of only three vaccines globally with an efficacy of over 90% – the other two being Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Running at less than $10 per dose on international markets, Sputnik V is the cheapest vaccine in this efficacy range. For comparison, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine runs between $14.50 and $20.00 on international markets, while Moderna’s vaccine sells for between $18.00 and $33.00 a dose. Sputnik V is also much easier to transport than its U.S./German counterparts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored at -70.0°C and -20.0°C respectively, whereas Sputnik V must be kept at a temperature range from 2 to 8°C, meaning that it can be stored in conventional refrigerators. This makes delivering the vaccine notably easier, especially to remote areas. Thus, Sputnik V is poised to make an important contribution to the global inoculation campaign.
Hurdles and victories in the international arena
Russia’s frontrunner vaccine has experienced a mix of hurdles and victories in the international arena. The biggest hurdles are regulatory in nature. For example, one major obstacle preventing the vaccine’s distribution is that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – the EU agency responsible for authorizing and evaluating medicines – has not yet approved Sputnik V. The EMA is still undergoing its rolling revue of the vaccine, and it appears that approval is unlikely to be granted until September at the earliest. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently raised the possibility that Sputnik may never get the EMA’s approval, casting further doubt on the vaccine’s future in Europe. The EMA’s regulatory hesitancy towards Sputnik V has prevented major EU players, such as Germany and France, from buying millions of doses of the vaccine.
Sputnik V similarly has not yet been cleared for Emergency Use Listing by the WHO. The UN agency found production violations at the Sputnik V manufacturing site in Ufa during a June examination. Although the WHO’s concerns have since been addressed according to Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, the incident has further put on hold the Russian Direct Investment Fund’s (RDIF) commitment to supply the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund with 220 million doses of Sputnik V. In a similar vein, the RDIF applied for Sputnik V to participate in COVID-19 vaccine access program COVAX earlier this year. Discussions with the Vaccine Alliance Gavi regarding Sputnik V’s inclusion in the COVAX Facility’s Portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, however, are still ongoing.
Although Sputnik V’s lack of EMA and WHO approval has hampered its international rollout, the ongoing authorization process has not eliminated the vaccine’s global relevance. In fact, the Russian vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use in nearly 70 countries and being used in 45. Two EU member states, Hungary and Slovakia, even have begun inoculating their citizens with Sputnik V without a greenlight from the EMA. Meanwhile, India and Turkey have ordered 250 million and 50 million doses of the vaccine, respectively. One thing is clear: Sputnik V is in high demand internationally despite the regulatory hurdles and controversies it faces. Trust in the Russian vaccine also remains markedly high notwithstanding these challenges. A poll conducted by British market research firm YouGov during February and March of this year found that, of participants who had a preference, 54.0% trusted Russia to produce a vaccine and 33.2% preferred to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. According to the survey, Russia and the United States are tied for the most trusted vaccine producing country, and Sputnik V is the second most preferred vaccine after Pfizer-BioNTech, which 36.6% of respondents favored. The survey featured respondents from the following 9 countries, collectively accounting for 25% of the global population: India; Brazil; Mexico; the Philippines; Vietnam; Argentina; Algeria; the UAE; and Serbia.
Sputnik V has been particularly successful in Latin America, a core region of the United States’ sphere of influence. Repeated polling has shown that Sputnik V enjoys high levels of confidence in Latin American countries, especially Argentina and Peru. The Russian vaccine got an early start in the region when on December 29, 2020, Argentina became the first Latin American country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine to its citizens. Mexico followed suit on February 24 and Nicaragua on March 2, 2021. To the surprise of many observers, on June 4 Brazil joined the list of countries that have approved Sputnik V.
Unfortunately, alongside the success Sputnik V has experienced in Latin America, the vaccine has also encountered a substantial challenge: supply shortages. Both Mexico and Argentina are currently facing shortages of Sputnik V’s second dose – and the problem is not confined to the region. Luckily, Russia’s strategy for eliminating supply shortages not only promises to see more people vaccinated, but also provides an opportunity for Russia to collaborate with its international partners: the country will manufacture vaccines abroad. Starting in July, 5 to 6 million doses of Sputnik V are set to be produced outside of Russia per month. Manufacturing countries include India, South Korea, and Brazil. The Argentine laboratory Richmond produced its first half million doses on June 18. The data sharing and collaboration necessary to manufacture Sputnik V abroad have the potential to increase Russia’s soft power in partner countries.
The other major players
It is crucial to note that Russia’s Sputnik V is only one piece in the puzzle of fighting COVID-19. Although an in-depth review of every country’s current approach to vaccine policy is beyond the scope of this article, a brief overview of the major vaccine providers’ – the United States, the United Kingdom, and China – global vaccine distribution is in store.
Unlike Russia, whose approach to vaccine distribution has been global facing since Sputnik V’s development, the United States initially favored domestic distribution and stockpiling of American vaccines. The Biden Administration has since turned course. The U.S. recently pledged to share 80 million U.S. vaccine doses by the end of June and to purchase 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for lower-income countries over the next year. Pfizer-BioNTech is currently being distributed in 105 countries, Moderna in 55, and Johnson&Johnson in 27.
The United Kingdom’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is currently being used in 178 countries, making it the most widely-used COVID-19 vaccine to date. Although evidence that the vaccine is linked to blood clots put a rut in its distribution, the vaccine is performing well internationally. Meanwhile, China’s Sinopharm-Beijing and Sinovac vaccines are being used in 40 and 32 countries, respectively. China has favored international distribution of its vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic and has shipped more vaccines abroad than any other country. The vaccines referenced in this article – among others – have collectively led to 22.2% of the world’s population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Western, especially American, media has portrayed Sputnik V in an overwhelmingly negative light. The Russian vaccine is represented more as a political tool than a health solution. Hiccups in the road to Sputnik V distribution are cited as evidence that the vaccine is not to be trusted. This approach to Sputnik V is fundamentally flawed. Regulation and safety inspections are crucial to safe vaccination efforts; finger-pointing and name-calling are not. Ultimately, vaccination should take precedence over politics. Alongside other vaccines, Sputnik V will propel us into a post-pandemic world.
Above all else, Sputnik V is a highly efficacious vaccine against COVID-19. When Sputnik V successfully performs its function – safely preventing vaccinated people from contracting and dying from the virus – a growth in vaccinated individuals’ trust of Russia will organically follow. This happy side effect undoubtedly has the potential to promote Russia’s image abroad and increase the country’s soft power. But even if Russia’s political gains from Sputnik V turn out to be small, humankind’s gains in lives saved will be immeasurable.
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