A vaccination site offering Sputnik V in Mexico. (AP)

A vaccination site offering Sputnik V in Mexico. (AP)

In Vaccine Race, Russia Trips in Latin America

By Chase Harrison

Once hailed as a cheap and accessible vaccine option for the region, Russia’s Sputnik V has run into delivery problems in Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, and elsewhere.

Russia, once a marquee partner for Latin American countries looking to lock in vaccine contracts, is faltering as of late. Countries who paid to receive its main vaccine, Sputnik V, are reporting delivery delays, a lack of supply, and continued questions about its safety and efficacy. These developments are hurting Russia’s ability to benefit from vaccine diplomacy, which has seen powerful countries like China, India, and the United States assist other nations with donations and deals.

The Sputnik V vaccine was the first to be registered for use in any nation. The two-dose vaccine was approved by the Russian government in August 2020 before results from the Phase 1 or 2 trial results were available from the developer, the Gamaleya National Research Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology. Still, over the past 12 months, Moscow has slowly released information that shows that the vaccine is 91.6 percent effective—results others have independently confirmed—though criticism lingers about the lack of sufficient data. The World Health Organization has yet to approve the vaccine.

Nonetheless, Sputnik V is approved for use in 69 countries. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which handles the vaccine’s export overseas, said in June that there are deals to produce 1.6 billion doses in 2021. The vaccine is promoted as cheaper and easier to store compared to its Western-made counterparts.

Production Delays

Eight countries in Latin America—Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela—have active contracts with the RDIF for a total of at least 95 million doses. Most of these contracts were signed in early 2021 when other vaccines, especially those produced in the United States, were not accessible. But by August 12, Russia had exported just under 20 million doses of Sputnik V to Latin America.

Guatemala was one of the first countries to register concern over delays in delivery. In April, Alejandro Giammattei’s government signed a contract and paid $79.6 million for 8 million doses, with another 8 million additional doses to be purchased at a later point. This is Guatemala’s only paid vaccine deal, though they have received donations from COVAX, the United States, Mexico, and Israel.

By July 1, however, Guatemala had received only 150,000 doses. President Giammattei presented an ultimatum: if Russia did not deliver 4 million doses by July 20, Guatemala would ask for a refund.

By the end of July, Russia delivered only 400,000 additional Sputnik V doses. Giammattei subsequently announced that while he hadn’t requested a refund, he did renegotiate the contract to no longer include the second tranche of 8 million doses. No new date was set for expected deliveries.

Countries across the region are struggling with similar delays of Sputnik V. Some, like Panama and Brazil, already cancelled their contracts due to concern over Russia’s ability to provide doses.


Why the delays? Part of the problem is that Sputnik V is challenging to manufacture, as its two doses have different compositions. This means each requires separate production facilities, adding cost and complexity to production. The RDIF also blamed the rapid scale-up for the delays. Even before Covid, there were few pharmaceutical plants in Russia, and the government had to convert old Soviet car factories into state-of-the-art facilities to meet demand. RDIF is also working with producers in 14 countries to begin manufacturing the vaccine abroad.

Amid all this, Russia is currently experiencing a third wave of infections. The government is attempting to raise its own lagging vaccine rate, as only 25 percent of people had received at least one dose by August 3. Vaccine hesitancy is also a problem in the country, and the government is starting to make vaccinations mandatory for workers in select industries.

Second Jab Woes 

The different composition of Sputnik V’s two doses is causing problems in countries that have received large batches of the vaccine, such as Argentina. The Southern Cone country was an early advocate of the vaccine, and President Alberto Fernández himself received it in January. Argentina’s Health Ministry approved Sputnik V in December and secured a deal for 30 million doses. So far, it has received about 12 million doses, the most in the region.

That said, about 9.5 million of the delivered doses are the first shot and 3.5 million the second, leaving 6 million Argentines with just a single dose and 79.4 percent immunity. In the Buenos Aires province alone, 180,000 people with one jab are past the three-month period by which the second shot need to be administered. As a result, the Argentine government announced it will offer AstraZeneca or Moderna jabs in lieu of a second Sputnik V shot, though a leaked letter showed the Fernández government considered cancelling the contract completely on July 7.

Meanwhile, Argentina has begun producing second shots of Sputnik V domestically at the Laboratorios Richmond SA in Buenos Aires, with RDIF approval. Their goal is to produce 3 million doses of the second shot by the end of August.

Argentina is not alone in having issues acquiring second doses. Mexico faced a similar problem of absent second doses in May. Interestingly, Russia is also offering just the first dose of Sputnik V as a separate, single-dose vaccine, known as Sputnik Light. National regulators approved it in both Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Uncertain Approval 

Still, lingering concerns over Sputnik V’s safety are giving some countries pause on potentially signing contracts for the vaccine. In Brazil, a protracted dispute took place over approving the jab. Back in March, Brazilian pharmaceutical União Química signed a contract to import 10 million doses and eventually produce doses domestically. Around this time, 16 states in Brazil requested permits to import 37 million doses of the Russian vaccine.

However, Brazil’s health regulator, Anvisa, did not permit these contracts to be acted upon, as it claimed it had insufficient information to approve Sputnik V for emergency use. Though they briefly approved Sputnik V in June, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said on July 14 the country no longer needs the doses, due to a sufficient supply for other vaccines, and in August, Anvisa cancelled the contracts completely.

Looking to the future 

Despite the delays, countries continue to sign deals with Sputnik V. Peru, where the Lambda variant is rising, inked a contract for 20 million doses in July. The RDIF is also looking to begin domestic production of Sputnik V in Bolivia, Mexico, and Nicaragua.