Digitalization and the development of artificial intelligence (AI) bring up many philosophical and ethical questions about the role of man and robot in the nascent social and economic order. How real is the threat of an AI dictatorship? Why do we need to tackle AI ethics today? Does AI provide breakthrough solutions? We ask these and other questions in our interview with Maxim Fedorov, Vice-President for Artificial Intelligence and Mathematical Modelling at Skoltech.
On 1–3 July, Maxim Fedorov chaired the inaugural Trustworthy AI online conference on AI transparency, robustness and sustainability hosted by Skoltech.
Maxim, do you think humanity already needs to start working out a new philosophical model for existing in a digital world whose development is determined by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies?
The fundamental difference between today’s technologies and those of the past is that they hold up a “mirror” of sorts to society. Looking into this mirror, we need to answer a number of philosophical questions. In times of industrialization and production automation, the human being was a productive force. Today, people are no longer needed in the production of the technologies they use. For example, innovative Japanese automobile assembly plants barely have any people at the floors, with all the work done by robots. The manufacturing process looks something like this: a driverless robot train carrying component parts enters the assembly floor, and a finished car comes out. This is called discrete manufacturing – the assembly of a finite set of elements in a sequence, a task which robots manage quite efficiently. The human being is gradually being ousted from the traditional economic structure, as automated manufacturing facilities generally need only a limited number of human specialists. So why do we need people in manufacturing at all? In the past, we could justify our existence by the need to earn money or consume, or to create jobs for others, but now this is no longer necessary. Digitalization has made technologies a global force, and everyone faces philosophical questions about their personal significance and role in the modern world – questions we should be answering today, and not in ten years when it will be too late.
At the last World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a lot of discussion about the threat of the digital dictatorship of AI. How real is that threat in the foreseeable future?
There is no evil inherent in AI. Technologies themselves are ethically neutral. It is people who decide whether to use them for good or evil.
Speaking of an AI dictatorship is misleading. In reality, technologies have no subjectivity, no “I.” Artificial intelligence is basically a structured piece of code and hardware. Digital technologies are just a tool. There is nothing “mystical” about them either.
My view as a specialist in the field is that AI is currently a branch of information and communications technology (ICT). Moreover, AI does not even “live” in an individual computer. For a person from the industry, AI is a whole stack of technologies that are combined to form what is called “weak” AI.
We inflate the bubble of AI’s importance and erroneously impart this technology stack with subjectivity. In large part, this is done by journalists, people without a technical education. They discuss an entity that does not actually exist, giving rise to the popular meme of an AI that is alternately the Terminator or a benevolent super-being. This is all fairy tales. In reality, we have a set of technological solutions for building effective systems that allow decisions to be made quickly based on big data.
Various high-level committees are discussing “strong” AI, which will not appear for another 50 to 100 years (if at all). The problem is that when we talk about threats that do not exist and will not exist in the near future, we are missing some real threats. We need to understand what AI is and develop a clear code of ethical norms and rules to secure value while avoiding harm.
Sensationalizing threats is a trend in modern society. We take a problem that feeds people’s imaginations and start blowing it up. For example, we are currently destroying the economy around the world under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus. What we are forgetting is that the economy has a direct influence on life expectancy, which means that we are robbing many people of years of life. Making decisions based on emotion leads to dangerous excesses.
As the philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has said, millions of people today trust the algorithms of Google, Netflix, Amazon and Alibaba to dictate to them what they should read, watch and buy. People are losing control over their lives, and that is scary.
Yes, there is the danger that human consciousness may be “robotized” and lose its creativity. Many of the things we do today are influenced by algorithms. For example, drivers listen to their sat navs rather than relying on their own judgment, even if the route suggested is not the best one. When we receive a message, we feel compelled to respond. We have become more algorithmic. But it is ultimately the creator of the algorithm, not the algorithm itself, that dictates our rules and desires.
There is still no global document to regulate behaviour in cyberspace. Should humanity perhaps agree on universal rules and norms for cyberspace first before taking on ethical issues in the field of AI?
I would say that the issue of ethical norms is primary. After we have these norms, we can translate them into appropriate behaviour in cyberspace. With the spread of the internet, digital technologies (of which AI is part) are entering every sphere of life, and that has led us to the need to create a global document regulating the ethics of AI.
But AI is a component part of information and communications technologies (ICT). Maybe we should not create a separate track for AI ethics but join it with the international information security (IIS) track? Especially since IIS issues are being actively discussed at the United Nations, where Russia is a key player.
There is some justification for making AI ethics a separate track, because, although information security and AI are overlapping concepts, they are not embedded in one another. However, I agree that we can have a separate track for information technology and then break it down into sub-tracks where AI would stand alongside other technologies. It is a largely ontological problem and, as with most problems of this kind, finding the optimal solution is no trivial matter.
You are a member of the international expert group under UNESCO that is drafting the first global recommendation on the ethics of AI. Are there any discrepancies in how AI ethics are understood internationally?
The group has its share of heated discussions, and members often promote opposing views. For example, one of the topics is the subjectivity and objectivity of AI. During the discussion, a group of states clearly emerged that promotes the idea of subjectivity and is trying to introduce the concept of AI as a “quasi-member of society.” In other words, attempts are being made to imbue robots with rights. This is a dangerous trend that may lead to a sort of technofascism, inhumanity of such a scale that all previous atrocities in the history of our civilization would pale in comparison.
Could it be that, by promoting the concept of robot subjectivity, the parties involved are trying to avoid responsibility?
Absolutely. A number of issues arise here. First, there is an obvious asymmetry of responsibility. “Let us give the computer with rights, and if its errors lead to damage, we will punish it by pulling the plug or formatting the hard drive.” In other words, the responsibility is placed on the machine and not its creator. The creator gets the profit, and any damage caused is someone else’s problem. Second, as soon as we give AI rights, the issues we are facing today with regard to minorities will seem trivial. It will lead to the thought that we should not hurt AI but rather educate it (I am not joking: such statements are already being made at high-level conferences). We will see a sort of juvenile justice for AI. Only it will be far more terrifying. Robots will defend robot rights. For example, a drone may come and burn your apartment down to protect another drone. We will have a techno-racist regime, but one that is controlled by a group of people. This way, humanity will drive itself into a losing position without having the smallest idea of how to escape it.
Thankfully, we have managed to remove any inserts relating to “quasi-members of society” from the group’s agenda.
We chose the right time to create the Committee for Artificial Intelligence under the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO, as it helped to define the main focus areas for our working group. We are happy that not all countries support the notion of the subjectivity of AI – in fact, most oppose it.
What other controversial issues have arisen in the working group’s discussions?
We have discussed the blurred border between AI and people. I think this border should be defined very clearly. Then we came to the topic of human-AI relationships, a term which implies the whole range of relationships possible between people. We suggested that “relationships” be changed to “interactions,” which met opposition from some of our foreign colleagues, but in the end, we managed to sort it out.
Seeing how advanced sex dolls have become, the next step for some countries would be to legalize marriage with them, and then it would not be long before people starting asking for church weddings. If we do not prohibit all of this at an early stage, these ideas may spread uncontrollably. This approach is backed by big money, the interests of corporations and a different system of values and culture. The proponents of such ideas include a number of Asian countries with a tradition of humanizing inanimate objects. Japan, for example, has a tradition of worshipping mountain, tree and home spirits. On the one hand, this instills respect for the environment, and I agree that, being a part of the planet, part of nature, humans need to live in harmony with it. But still, a person is a person, and a tree is a tree, and they have different rights.
Is the Russian approach to AI ethics special in any way?
We were the only country to state clearly that decisions on AI ethics should be based on a scientific approach. Unfortunately, most representatives of other countries rely not on research, but on their own (often subjective) opinion, so discussions in the working group often devolve to the lay level, despite the fact that the members are highly qualified individuals.
I think these issues need to be thoroughly researched. Decisions on this level should be based on strict logic, models and experiments. We have tremendous computing power, an abundance of software for scenario modelling, and we can model millions of scenarios at a low cost. Only after that should we draw conclusions and make decisions.
How realistic is the fight against the subjectification of AI if big money is at stake? Does Russia have any allies?
Everyone is responsible for their own part. Our task right now is to engage in discussions systematically. Russia has allies with matching views on different aspects of the problem. And common sense still prevails. The egocentric approach we see in a number of countries that is currently being promoted, this kind of self-absorption, actually plays into our hands here. Most states are afraid that humans will cease to be the centre of the universe, ceding our crown to a robot or a computer. This has allowed the human-centred approach to prevail so far.
If the expert group succeeds at drafting recommendations, should we expect some sort of international regulation on AI in the near future?
If we are talking about technical standards, they are already being actively developed at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), where we have been involved with Technical Committee 164 “Artificial Intelligence” (TC 164) in the development of a number of standards on various aspects of AI. So, in terms of technical regulation, we have the ISO and a whole range of documents. We should also mention the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and its report on Ethically Aligned Design. I believe this document is the first full-fledged technical guide on the ethics of autonomous and intelligent systems, which includes AI. The corresponding technical standards are currently being developed.
As for the United Nations, I should note the Beijing Consensus on Artificial Intelligence and Education that was adopted by UNESCO last year. I believe that work on developing the relevant standards will start next year.
So the recommendations will become the basis for regulatory standards?
Exactly. This is the correct way to do it. I should also say that it is important to get involved at an early stage. This way, for instance, we can refer to the Beijing agreements in the future. It is important to make sure that AI subjectivity does not appear in the UNESCO document, so that it does not become a reference point for this approach.
Let us move from ethics to technological achievements. What recent developments in the field can be called breakthroughs?
We haven’t seen any qualitative breakthroughs in the field yet. Image recognition, orientation, navigation, transport, better sensors (which are essentially the sensory organs for robots) – these are the achievements that we have so far. In order to make a qualitative leap, we need a different approach.
Take the “chemical universe,” for example. We have researched approximately 100 million chemical compounds. Perhaps tens of thousands of these have been studied in great depth. And the total number of possible compounds is 1060, which is more than the number of atoms in the Universe. This “chemical universe” could hold cures for every disease known to humankind or some radically new, super-strong or super-light materials. There is a multitude of organisms on our planet (such as the sea urchin) with substances in their bodies that could, in theory, cure many human diseases or boost immunity. But we do not have the technology to synthesize many of them. And, of course, we cannot harvest all the sea urchins in the sea, dry them and make an extract for our pills. But big data and modelling can bring about a breakthrough in this field. Artificial intelligence can be our navigator in this “chemical universe.” Any reasonable breakthrough in this area will multiply our income exponentially. Imagine an AIDS or cancer medicine without any side effects, or new materials for the energy industry, new types of solar panels, etc. These are the kind of things that can change our world.
How is Russia positioned on the AI technology market? Is there any chance of competing with the United States or China?
We see people from Russia working in the developer teams of most big Asian, American and European companies. A famous example is Sergey Brin, co-founder and developer of Google. Russia continues to be a “donor” of human resources in this respect. It is both reassuring and disappointing because we want our talented guys to develop technology at home. Given the right circumstances, Yandex could have dominated Google.
As regards domestic achievements, the situation is somewhat controversial. Moscow today is comparable to San Francisco in terms of the number, quality and density of AI development projects. This is why many specialists choose to stay in Moscow. You can find a rewarding job, interesting challenges and a well-developed expert community.
In the regions, however, there is a concerning lack of funds, education and infrastructure for technological and scientific development. All three of our largest supercomputers are in Moscow. Our leaders in this area are the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow State University and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology – organizations with a long history in the sciences, rich traditions, a sizeable staff and ample funding. There are also some pioneers who have got off the ground quickly, such as Skoltech, and surpassed their global competitors in many respects. We recently compared Skoltech with a leading AI research centre in the United Kingdom and discovered that our institution actually leads in terms of publications and grants. This means that we can and should do world-class science in Russia, but we need to overcome regional development disparities.
Russia has the opportunity to take its rightful place in the world of high technology, but our strategy should be to “overtake without catching up.” If you look at our history, you will see that whenever we have tried to catch up with the West or the East, we have lost. Our imitations turned out wrong, were laughable and led to all sorts of mishaps. On the other hand, whenever we have taken a step back and synthesized different approaches, Asian or Western, without blindly copying them, we have achieved tremendous success.
We need to make a sober assessment of what is happening in the East and in the West and what corresponds to our needs. Russia has many unique challenges of its own: managing its territory, developing the resource industries and continuous production. If we are able to solve these tasks, then later we can scale up our technological solutions to the rest of the world, and Russian technology will be bought at a good price. We need to go down our own track, not one that is laid down according to someone else’s standards, and go on our way while being aware of what is going on around us. Not pushing back, not isolating, but synthesizing.
From our partner RIAC
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.
From our partner RIAC
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A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle...
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The Taliban have recently conquered large portions of Afghanistan and seem poised to overrun the Afghan government in Kabul. Yet,...
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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief....
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Serbia has been waiting since 2012 for the European Union to respond to its application to become a full member...
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