In authoritarian hands: Russia's experimental Covid-19 vaccine comes to Egypt

In authoritarian hands: Russia's experimental Covid-19 vaccine comes to Egypt
Comment: Russia's Covid-19 vaccine has been developed with an unsurprising lack of transparency, and Sisi's willingness to distribute it is serious cause for concern, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
02 Oct, 2020
Russia will supply Egypt with 25 million doses of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine [Getty]
In normal times, the news that Egypt is to receive enough doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to inoculate almost 25 percent of the population - some 25 million doses - would be seen as a hugely positive development.  

The country has, after all, been ravaged by the virus, with official figures of deaths and infections standing at almost 6,000 and over 100,000 respectively. These figures are widely believed to seriously underestimate the prevalence and deadliness of the disease in the country, with Egypt's huge population remaining one of the least tested for the disease in the world. 

However, these are not normal times. The vaccine in question is Russia's controversial Sputnik V

Any vaccination against Covid-19 that works will be a benefit to humanity and will hopefully be distributed in an egalitarian and depoliticised manner. But those are two concepts that are sadly entirely alien to both Putin's imperialist Russia, and the Sisi regime.

The main question lies around the safety of this vaccine.  Should Egypt, or any country be accepting such large quantities of a vaccine that has thus far failed to meet the necessarily rigorous WHO-approved testing procedures that qualify it as safe for use? 

Though the scientific community is split on the effectiveness of Sputnik V, one of the main areas of concern is the unsurprising lack of transparency from the Russian government. Before a solitary case study had even been reported, Putin was already announcing it as a success.  

If those deemed globally expendable are to be used as guinea pigs, Russia will find no better an accomplice than the Sisi regime

But even after Phase I-II study results were published in The Lancet, leading scientists still had concerns, highlighting the lack of a detailed breakdown of the necessary data to truly determine the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

So the fact that Russia has already begun dispensing the vaccine to segments of its own population, and now in huge numbers to countries such as Egypt without providing the data or going through the necessary Phase III trials, is serious cause for concern. 

Russia appears to be using the vaccine as a means to further its far from humanitarian global political agenda, with mass distribution to Egypt a cynical and foolhardy attempt to outmanoeuvre potential western vaccines.   

If this is the case, and those deemed globally expendable are to be used as guinea pigs, Russia will find no better an accomplice than the Sisi regime. We know that the Egyptian regime treats its own people with brutal contempt - both in its current incarnation and historically.

If Sputnik V was to have deleterious and horrific side effects, what better place to test than in a country where the ruling forces consider the lives of the Egyptian people to be so cheap?  

Read more: Rabaa wasn't just a coup, it ushered in a new, totalitarian era in Egypt

There is a very dark historic precedent for this. Egypt currently suffers from the world's worst epidemic of Hepatitis C, which in turn can be traced to the 
catastrophically reckless attempts to treat the parasite Bilharzia under the Nasser and Sadat regimes.

An Egyptian doctor, speaking to me under the condition of anonymity, commented "[we] would all as medical professionals welcome any even partial inoculation, but while the government has spoken of distributing the vaccine safely, there is a real fear that it will be considered a quick fix [to Covid-19] when even the most basic things are not being taken care of."

By "basic things", the doctor means Egypt's chronic shortage of PPE, the aforementioned lack of testing and the kleptocratic underfunding of hospitals that has led to the near collapse of Egypt's health system due to the Covid-19 epidemic. 

The regime is even accused of allowing Covid-19 to spread among populations of political prisoners, serving as yet another brutal punishment for crossing them, if not an unofficial executioner.  

Egypt's atrocious human rights record is there for all to see, from the mass murder of Rabaa, to mass executions, mass torture and the everyday violence meted out to even the mildest critics of the regime. Even reporting truth in Egypt is a criminal offense akin to terrorism, something that includes the arrest and vicious persecution of doctors who speak out against deficiencies in the fight against Covid-19. 

If the vaccine was to prove unsafe, Egypt would serve as the ideal place for such information to never see the light of day - perfectly in keeping with Russia's less than transparent approach.

However, even if we imagine that the vaccination works (and there is some evidence that it could), there is nothing to say that Egypt will distribute fairly. The vaccine could be hoarded by the regime, distributed among the ruling elites and then sold - as medicines and treatments in Egypt invariably are - for exceptionally high prices. 

Before Covid-19 appeared in Egypt, many essential medicines that were previously free under Egypt's once robust public healthcare system under Nasser are now 
effectively out of reach for poor Egyptians. 

The regime will likely use the vaccine to put the economy first, protecting the key areas that keep the kleptocracy ticking over

Instead of rolling out to vaccine those who need it most: the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and front line workers, it's easy to see how the regime might use it politically, to buy loyalty or to blackmail critical voices.

More likely, however, the regime will use the vaccine to put the economy first, protecting the key areas that keep the kleptocracy ticking over, namely tourism and hospitality being prioritised over everything else, including medical workers, so many of whom have died due to the malign negligence of the state.  

At this stage, it's difficult to know exactly how this will play out in Egypt, but Russia's cynical motives are hardly difficult to determine. In an interview with Egyptian state media, the Russian ambassador in Cairo openly boasted that the vaccine was a gateway to furthering relations between the two countries. 

And even the name is a giveaway, with Sputnik being the first satellite launched into space, and a significant victory for the USSR in the early days of the Cold War. There's little doubt that the scramble for a vaccine between major powers is motivated in no small part by neo-imperialism and geopolitical prestige.

This is especially true of aggressively anti-democratic authoritarian forces like Russia, already a party to imperialist ambitions in the region, and Sisi is part of the same tyrannical web. The vaccine then, inevitably brings with it a certain sense of trepidation. 

We can only hope that Egyptians do not end up as collateral damage or sacrificial lambs in whatever game Russia is playing.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.