Russia has an unlikely new social media star: Its Sputnik COVID vaccine

March 24, 2021, 3:59 PM UTC

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Russia’s Sputnik V may not be the only COVID-19 vaccine in the world, but it’s the only one with its own Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Twitter handle.

On Twitter, the blue-check-verified Sputnik V is a bit of a braggart. Its mouthful of a bio reads, “The world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine with proven 91.6% efficacy, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute. Registered in 56 countries.” And for good measure it bills itself as “the only official #Covid Vaccine account,” where it keeps its 220,000 followers up to date with a steady torrent of news—mostly in English—from around the world, mainly from countries that have already authorized the Russian vaccine.

In recent days, Russia’s COVID killer has been particularly visible on social media. Had you been scrolling Twitter for news on Grammy winners or the latest NFL free-agent signings, you may have seen in your feed repeated paid-for suggestions to give Sputnik a follow.

In the staid world of vaccine medicine, this all makes Sputnik a standout. In crafting an online persona for the vaccine brand, the social media team seems to be taking inspiration from the attention-grabbing Elon Musk rather than, say, the stick-to-the-science Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Just today the team did a pickup of a YouGov poll that appears to demonstrate a good portion of the public will roll up its collective sleeves only for the strongest of vaccines. The inference? If your vaccine comes in at under 90% efficacy, it’s a weakling. So take that, AstraZeneca!

The way Sputnik V uses social media is both unusual and somewhat problematic, Caroline Wiertz, professor of marketing and associate dean for entrepreneurship at the Business School of City, University of London, told Fortune. For starters, Western pharmaceutical companies tend to play it safe in their digital marketing efforts so as not to run afoul of regulators and advertising watchdogs.

“Once you are actually approved—by the European Medicines Agency, or the U.K. equivalent, or the FDA in the U.S.—you have to comply with their rules with regard to marketing and advertising,” she continues. “In Europe and the U.K., they are even more stringent than in the U.S., where you are allowed to advertise medicines directly to end-consumers.

“So that limits the opportunities, but it doesn’t mean you can’t tweet at all. If you just shared unbiased information about studies and vaccine efficacy, etc., I’m sure you could probably do that within the guidelines,” Wiertz said.

She gives Sputnik some points for communicating about vaccines in this age of anti-vaxxers, but the timing—before the vaccine has even been approved by the likes of EMA—is troubling.

“What they may be trying to do is create a public image and opinion that is not yet fully backed up by the necessary evidence, and I do think that is problematic,” Wiertz said.

Jabs at the competition

It’s all part of a sophisticated social media blitz engineered by Sputnik V’s backers, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and the Gamaleya National Center for Microbiology and Epidemiology, which developed the vaccine, to promote acceptance and use of the Russian vaccine around the world.

“Our social media campaign will focus on providing up-to-date information about our vaccine effort for a global audience, but beyond that it also aims to give mankind hope that they will soon be able to break free from the COVID-19 pandemic and go back to normal life without lockdowns and face masks,” Kirill Dmitriev, RDIF’s CEO, said, launching the campaign late last year.

How, exactly, are the marketing minds behind Sputnik giving mankind hope?

Mostly, by combing the web for any mention of positive spin about Sputnik. That typically involves pictures of grateful-looking vaccinees. And it’s not beneath the team to broadcast the odd humblebrag.

Did you know, for example, that Mauritius became the 55th country to approve Sputnik V? Or that Vietnam was No. 56?

And when that other Sputnik, the Russian online news outlet, recently found a back-patting story about a well-known Italian field artist paying homage to the vaccine, the digital team was quick to share the love.

The Sputnik V team is also not averse to punching down. On a few occasions, it’s highlighted the missteps of its rivals. Last week, it cited a Wall Street Journal story about scientists finding the cause of rare blood-clotting that may be linked to AstraZeneca’s jab.

On Sputnik V’s YouTube channel, meanwhile, the theme there is we-go-high. For example, one video, posted a few days before New Year’s Eve, features a montage of attractive people standing in public squares around the world holding up their fingers in a “V” sign to underline the vaccine’s slogan “Follow Sputnik V for victory.” Meanwhile, on Sputnik V’s Instagram feed it’s offering followers the chance to “win a summer trip to Russia! Share your best victory sign photo to enter.” 

Cold War allusions

The PR offensive is part of a wider diplomatic struggle over a vaccine that is quickly making inroads in countries around the world. Apart from financial benefits, the prize at stake is to be seen as the world’s savior from a plague that has cost the lives of a staggering 2.7 million people. If they can win the battle for hearts and minds, the powers see a chance to extend their prestige and influence to far-flung parts of the world.

At the same time, Sputnik V’s very name—an echo of the first satellite put into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1957—evokes the Cold War space race.

RDIF says 56 countries have so far approved the use of the Sputnik V vaccine, which is made using weakened common-cold viruses, which it says can be stored in a conventional refrigerator and costs less than $10 per shot.

Helen Ramscar, an associate fellow at British defense think tank RUSI, said the social media validation conferred by Twitter’s blue badge was “not insignificant” in an era when “diplomats worldwide increasingly operate in up to 280 characters at a time.” It also offers Russia something to boast about on the world stage.

Vaccine diplomacy, she says, gives Russia a chance to improve its image after attacks on Russian dissidents in the U.K. with a radioactive substance and a nerve agent in recent years that Britain has blamed on Russia. “Moscow has been able to radiate a new impression of its biochemical prowess: Instead of polonium and novichok, Sputnik V comes from Russia with love,” Ramscar wrote in a commentary on RUSI’s website.

But the West could probably learn a thing or two from Sputnik’s social media savvy. Analysis by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, set up to counter attempts to undermine democracy in the West, found that the Sputnik V Twitter account had been a smashing success in building a following and generating engagement (as measured by “likes” and “retweets”).

“Up to its old tricks”

While Moscow publicly sings the praises of Sputnik V, the U.S. government believes Russian intelligence services have covertly used small online publications to undermine confidence in Pfizer and other Western vaccines.

“Our Global Engagement Center has identified four Russian online platforms that are directed by Russian intelligence services and spread disinformation. These sites have, in fact, included disinformation about two of the vaccines that have now been approved by the FDA in this country,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said this month, confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal.

“It is very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks, and in doing so is potentially putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives every day,” he said.

Sputnik V has had to battle to overcome skepticism in the West since President Vladimir Putin surprised the world by announcing in August last year that Moscow had approved the vaccine for use, and that one of his daughters had already had the jab. Putin’s announcement came less than two months after Russia began clinical trials of the vaccine and before it had completed a large-scale Phase III trial.

Suspicions of the vaccine in the West eased after respected medical journal The Lancet published interim analysis of Sputnik V’s Phase III trial in February showing it was more than 91% effective in stopping people getting sick from COVID—similar to efficacy levels demonstrated by the Pfizer-BioNTech inoculation and the U.S. Moderna vaccine and more effective than the Oxford University–developed AstraZeneca jab.

While RDIF has been trumpeting Sputnik V’s successes abroad, Russians themselves do not seem overly keen to take the home-grown vaccine. An opinion poll by the Levada Center, a Russian research group, conducted in February, found that the number of Russians willing to take the Sputnik V vaccine was falling, with 30% ready to be vaccinated and 62% not. Four percent had already been vaccinated.

Putin, whose failure so far to have the jab has been noticed, said he would be vaccinated Tuesday. Alas, Putin wouldn’t allow cameras into the vaccine center and wouldn’t say which vaccine he took, robbing Sputnik’s social media team—for a day, at least—of the ultimate promotional tweet.

Scaling up is hard to do

Data from Airfinity, a science analytics firm that’s tracking worldwide rollout, suggests Russia’s ambitions for Sputnik V are more talk than reality.

Airfinity puts cumulative production of the Sputnik V vaccine to March 12 at around 12.3 million doses, far behind Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and the two Chinese vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm. Pfizer is way out in front, having made 133.5 million doses.

As of the end of February, Russia had produced 10.7 million doses of vaccine, sending 3.7 million abroad, according to Airfinity. That would leave just 7 million shots of the two-dose vaccine for its population of 145 million.

That prompted a caustic put-down from EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who wondered aloud in February “why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people.”

Broad take-up of the Russian vaccine in the European Union, a strategic rival of Moscow in Eastern Europe and an often vocal critic, would be a prized feather in Russia’s cap. The EU’s European Medicines Agency said this month it would start a “rolling review” of data on Sputnik V, which would continue until enough evidence was available to apply for formal marketing authorization.

The head of the European Union’s vaccine task force, Frenchman Thierry Breton, last weekend poured some water on Sputnik’s application, saying the EU had “absolutely no need” of the Russian vaccine.

Sure enough, that drew a strong rebuke from Sputnik’s Twitter team.

“When we hear such statements from officials, we have a question, whose interests are these people defending?” the Twitter account shot back. “The interests of pharma companies or the European citizens? We do not impose our vaccine on anyone.”

The tweet drew 968 likes.