The first phase of this world-changing pandemic ended up with two clear winners: China, which got to whitewash its image via a world-extended humanitarian effort that proved fundamental for the promotion of the so-called Health Silk Road, and Turkey, which got to extend further its influence over the Balkans, the Muslim world and Central Asia. US and Russia Get Involved The United States tried to sabotage China’s unexpectedly quick recovery by sending tons of aid to the European Union – the two countries’ main battlefield – and by promoting a war of narratives. Russia, for its part, opted for an initial isolationist policy and started to reply to the help requests of its allies and strategic partners at a later stage, after having understood the danger of Turkey’s incursions into the Balkans and the post-Soviet space. But concurrent with the evergreen law of historical recurrence, Russia is used to feeling the blow and drawing back at first only to later react with a game-changing total mobilization effort. That’s why, possibly, it has been the Kremlin that put an end to the vaccine race on August 11 by announcing the registration of the successfully-tested Sputnik V. One Billion Doses The announcement was made on August 11 by Russian President Vladimir Putin and received a mixed welcome. The West immediately started questioning the reliability and effectiveness of the Russian vaccine, which has been symbolically named Sputnik V after the Soviet space program, whereas the main leaders of the Global South made contact with the Kremlin to arrange the first pre-orders. By the end of August the Russian government confirmed that it had received orders for about one billions doses of Sputnik V – all of them coming from the developing world, from Brazil and Mexico to India and Philippines. The European Union members and most Western-aligned countries are likely to put the political interest before their citizens’ well-being, and accordingly they are going to wait for an American-made, EU-made or Israeli-made vaccine, but in no way will doing so actually work against the Kremlin’s agenda. Russia Doesn’t Need the West to be Onboard Indeed, the Moscow-based Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology did not develop the Sputnik V hopefully to convince the West of Russia’s good intentions but to recover the ground lost during the first phase of the pandemic. It comes as no surprise that the first countries to be approached, and by which the Kremlin itself has been approached, belong to the post-Soviet space and, more broadly, to the Global South; these same countries will also have the privilege of receiving their orders in record time. As of mid-September the list of Sputnik V-interested countries belonging to the former USSR is comprised of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Belarus. Kazakhstan is set to receive an initial load of more than two million doses and also secured “a guaranteed amount of the Sputnik V vaccine after it passes all trials.” Uzbekistan green-lighted the extraordinary purchase of 35 million doses, and Moldova announced the coming import of unknown amounts of the vaccine. Regaining a Grip on the Post-Soviet Space In short, Sputnik V will be Russia’s keystone for keep controlling the post-Soviet space while increasing its influence and improving its image in the Global South, especially in Africa and Asia. Western pressure will follow but they won’t change the fact that the first people to be vaccinated all over the world are going to be treated with the Sputnik V medicine. National economies will be saved from the nightmare of new lockdowns and the research centers of dozens of countries, from Kazakhstan to Nigeria, are working on knowledge exchange programs with Russian scientists. No further Western development will be able to change the effects of this groundbreaking diplomatic victory, only the potential discovery that the vaccine does not work properly or effectively. The Belarus Dilemma Of great importance is the case of the ever-rebellious Belarus, whose long-lasting President Aleksandr Lukashenko decided to put an end to its anti-Russian stand in the aftermath of the post-election disorders and is now trying to resume high-quality bilateral relations with Russia through a flirtatious diplomacy. After releasing the Wagner Group members detained in late July and accusing the West of being behind a color revolution attempt Lukashenko travelled to Sochi to meet Putin on September 14 and discuss Minsk’s future geopolitical alignment. In Sochi, Lukashenko got a 1.5 billion dollar loan and the promise to receive the vaccine by mid-October, giving Belarus the privilege to be one of the first countries in the world to start a COVID-19 mass vaccination. These two events would have been impossible if the EU-sponsored regime change attempt had never taken place: Lukashenko was actually very interested in changing the status quo and moving his country away from the Russian sphere of influence as shown by the historical purchase of American oil and by the Russophobic-dominated election campaign. The decision to try a Euromaidan 2.0 proved a severe mistake dictated by impatience, shortsightedness and scarce knowledge of the Belarusian panorama, which is pretty far from the Ukrainian situation. Now, with the EU openly supporting a power transition led by the opposition – which has been granted asylum in Poland and Lithuania, and willing to implement a sanctions-regime against Lukashenko-loyal statesmen and business people – Russia has found in the Sputnik V the ultimate tool with which to re-exert full control over its wayward backyard. Lukashenko’s perception of Russia is going to be shaped profoundly by the set of events which took place between August and September and whoever will follow him must take into account the fundamental role played by Putin in avoiding a Ukraine-style scenario, which seemed very likely in the first days of protests, and in helping the country face the COVID19-related crisis and economic turmoil despite the misunderstandings with the leadership. The Balkans The Western Balkans are another geopolitical theater for which the Sputnik V was made. Indeed, it’s here, in the former Yugoslavia that Turkey and the EU carried out a dual strategy based on the sending of aid, on Turkey’s part, and of money and loans, on the EU’s part. Complementarity was the key-word of the West’s strategy for the Balkans, a region from which Russia has been almost completely ousted over the years. The Kremlin’s remaining satellites in the Western Balkans are Serbia, Bosnia’s Serbian Entity (Republika Srpska), and to a lesser extent Montenegro, where the Russo-Serbian axis is precluded from politics but keeps exerting a powerful cultural hegemony via the Orthodox Church. It is no surprise that Serbia and Bosnia were targeted by massive humanitarian campaigns by Turkey and the EU: the goal was to take advantage of the pandemic to lay the foundations for a new order in the after-crisis. The Kremlin managed not to lose the battle for the Western Balkans due to the vital support provided by China, which sent tons of aid to the Balkans at Russia’s request as well as to Belarus, Moldova, Venezuela and other Russian-aligned countries. The outcome of the joint efforts was the securing of Serbia and the creation of a polarized situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The changes brought Bosnia more and more close to the EU and made Turkey and the Republika Srpska increasingly reliant on – and friendly with – the Moscow-Beijing-Belgrade trio. After a months-long struggle, the battle for the Western Balkans seems close to an end: Republika Srpska announced the intention to order up to one million doses from Russia by the end of the year, and Serbia is likely to follow, as their leader Aleksandar Vucic recently pointed out. The Avifavir Against the background of the Sputnik V revolution, Russia is recording another significant victory via the drug Avifavir. It is a COVID-19 treatment drug which is both cheap and reliable. The medication is manufactured by the Russian company ChemRar and, again, the first of its kind to be registered. The quality-price ratio of Avifavir is also convincing an increasing number of countries — including some in the EU — to order millions of doses. As of mid-September, ChemRar sold the drug to six countries and received orders from 17 countries. Again it is no surprise that the first countries which were approached by the Kremlin – or by which the Kremlin was approached regarding Avifavir – belonged in large part to the post-Soviet space, namely Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Sputnik V and Avifavir were not made to win the race for hegemony over the world – that is a competition which is being fought between the United States and China – but to keep control over the Russosphere and help improve Russia’s position in the Global South.
Dr. Anthony Fauci just spilled the beans: contrary to the implicit promise numerous politicians made that COVID-19 restrictions would only last “until there’s an effective vaccine,” Fauci says the arrival of a vaccine won’t mean life will return to normal, perhaps for more than a year. “If you’re talking about getting back to a degree of normality which resembles where we were prior to COVID, it’s going to be well into 2021, maybe even towards the end of 2021,” said the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Friday. A safe and effective vaccine produced this quickly would be a stunning scientific accomplishment that could save thousands of lives. But Fauci warned that widespread distribution and getting “the majority, or more, of the population vaccinated and protected” won’t happen until perhaps the end 2021, and therefore means we cannot be free from oppressive lockdown measures until at least that point. Aside from Fauci being a reliable harbinger for politicians moving the COVID-19 goal posts, we have three very good reasons to doubt the understanding promoted by politicians so far about returning to normal when a vaccine is deployed: 1) politicians already moved the goalposts far away from “flatten the curve” and “15 days to slow the spread” and thus can’t be trusted 2) they’ve ignored their promise of reopening if effective treatments were found, and 3) the newly discovered phenomenon of COVID-19 reinfection gives panic-pushers an excuse to keep lockdown measures until some new target of vaccine efficacy or compliance is met. In short, we have every reason to believe Fauci might even be understating the persistence of lockdown measures and almost no reason to believe previous political promises. As I’ve written before, the slide from “flattening the curve” to make sure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed to goals as ambitious as “stopping the spread” happened about as fast as the decline in bad news about COVID-19 this spring. With nary an explanation as to why meeting the first goal wasn’t good enough to reopen American life as they had promised, politicians and journalists gaslit the public into accepting months of lockdowns. No one this disingenuous can be trusted, which brings us to point number two: some governors have implied relief from lockdowns upon getting “effective treatment” as recently as this month. According to the Desert Sun, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in late August that the coronavirus “isn’t going away any time soon,” and that Californians need to “‘live with this fundamental truth until there is a vaccine’ or therapeutics help manage the spread of the virus” (emphasis added). Similarly, the August 20 version of Washington’s Safe Start Reopening plan says, “Until there is an effective vaccine, effective treatment or herd immunity, it is crucial to maintain some level of community interventions to suppress the spread of COVID-19” (emphasis added). Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said on September 1 that Oregon can’t return to normal “until we reach the day that there is an effective vaccine or treatment for this disease” (emphasis added). Except we already have cheap, safe, effective therapeutics to help manage the spread of the virus that have been shown to clear the viral load in mild to moderate COVID-19 cases in about a week. Both ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine have been in use for more than half a century and have favorable safety profiles (extremely high dosages notwithstanding). Numerous studies of hydroxychloroquine, sometimes in combination with azithromycin, show significant reduction in mortality. Ivermectin is newer to the COVID-19 treatment scene, but research so far indicates an impressive level of efficacy in eliminating the virus. If we’re “at war” with COVID-19 and if shortening the contagious period is so important, as Newsom claims, then there’s no reason not to encourage widespread use of these treatments by doctors. Yet the West Coast governors haven’t even tied a promise of reopening to confirmation of efficacy with these or any other drug currently being evaluated for COVID-19, something it makes perfect sense to do if they were serious about reopening with an effective treatment. So should residents of these states trust their governors’ implicit promise they can return to normal when there’s an “effective” vaccine? And just how effective must it be to trigger a return to normal? Government officials have conveniently refused to determine metrics for that, leaving open the opportunity to move the goalposts yet again. More importantly, now that we know reinfection with other strains of SARS-CoV-2 may be possible (albeit mild in effect, so far as we know), politicians can now say the rules of the game have changed, if and when it suits their agenda. While governors who imposed harsh pandemic restrictions, like Inslee, Cuomo, and Murphy, have been quiet so far on what reinfection means for policy, it will be easy for them to spin mild and asymptomatic reinfection as a cause for alarm, particularly if their case counts begin trending upwards again. Rather than pushing politicians to lift social distancing and mask restrictions, as Forbes Policy Editor Avik Roy hopes the nature of the reinfections will do (since a COVID-19 vaccine will likely have very limited efficacy, as with the flu), governors and public health officials could argue the asymptomatic and mild cases of reinfection are all the more reason to “lock down again,” since we may experience a wave of reinfections before a vaccine has been widely administered. Given that asymptomatic individuals have been made into the “superspreader” bogeymen of the pandemic, they can be touted as an additional reason to make everyone who appears healthy, including people who’ve already had the disease, continue distancing and wearing masks in perpetuity. Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it would only greenlight vaccines for deployment that have more than a 50 percent efficacy rate. If none of the vaccine candidates meet that standard, governors could inflict a range of social distancing policies until there is one, perhaps years down the road. The goalposts are moving yet again. Contrary to Roy’s conclusion that ineffective vaccines will rob non-pharmaceutical interventions of their political and public health experience, it’s likely vaccination rates will become the new target for governors. Even if the FDA lowers the bar and accepts 30 percent efficacy as good enough for deployment (a rate we sometimes see with the seasonal flu vaccine), governors who think we can’t go back to normal until the virus is “stopped” will put even more pressure on getting as much of their state vaccinated as possible. Even before Fauci’s pronouncement that we needed to get at least a majority of Americans vaccinated, signs were emerging that the goalposts would move to vaccination rates. Before the first confirmed reinfection case even came to light, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said he plans to mandate the yet-to-be-released COVID-19 vaccine for all Virginians, with no exceptions except for medical reasons. Experience thus far tells us we should expect that if significant portions of the public are reticent to take the COVID-19 vaccine, many governors will attempt to institute a universal mandate, and keep lockdown measures until everyone is vaccinated. It isn’t hard to envision at least several states enacting travel restrictions and bans on school entry for those who refuse the coronavirus vaccine, even though the disease is almost never deadly to those under the age of 45. If Joe Biden wins the presidency, we could see a federal attempt to mandate the vaccine. The Democratic nominee has already voiced his support for “nationwide mask mandates” and willingness to “do whatever it takes” and “shut [the country] down” if some experts tell him he should. A vaccine mandate would solidify mass compliance as the condition for returning to normal. Keeping COVID-19 restrictions “until there’s a vaccine” was always an empty promise, meant to keep the public submissive for a few more months. If the deployment of an effective vaccine doesn’t end COVID-19 restrictions, you know there is no lie pro-lockdown government officials won’t sell us to hold onto their power. Voters would do well to take this into account when casting ballots this November.