Amid vaccine scramble, Latin America turns to Russia

As one of Latin America’s poorest countries, Bolivia has struggled to secure deals with Western drug makers for COVID-19 vaccines, but that changed late last year, when incoming president Luis Arce turned to Russia for help.

By the end of December, Bolivia clinched its first major deal, with enough shots for some 20 percent of the population.

The first Sputnik V doses arrived in the country in late January, just as cases were spiking, bringing hope to one of Latin America’s most ravaged nations where a recent surge has left corpses piling up amid overwhelmed funeral homes and cemeteries.

Bolivian President Luis Arce:

PRESIDENT ARCE ON JAN 28, 2021: "Today the Bolivian people can breathe easy, they can start to do so little-by-little and gradually…”

Bolivia's reliance on Moscow underscores how governments across the region have turned to Russia's Sputnik V drug amid fears of being left behind in the global scramble for vaccines.

While wealthier developed nations have signed deals with large drug makers like Pfizer and AstraZeneca – many Latin America countries have faced difficulties doing so.

Bolivian deputy trade minister Benjamin Blanco called discussions last year to obtain AstraZeneca’s vaccine as “difficult” and “intense,” though he declined to give more details, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Bolivia wasn’t able to negotiate with Pfizer, he said, because the country lacked the infrastructure to store the vaccines at the freezing temperatures required.

But Russia's political will made a deal possible, Blanco said.

“Thanks to the relationship that we have at the political level, Russia considers Bolivia a strategic partner and vice versa, thanks to the intervention of our own Bolivian president, who has contacted the president of Russia by phone, this contract was achieved."

For Russia, acceptance in Latin America lends legitimacy to its vaccine, which faced initial skepticism. It also provides Moscow an opportunity to make in-roads in the resource rich region at a time when COVID-19 vaccines are becoming a tool for soft power.

Sputnik V is named after the Soviet-era satellite that triggered the space race, in a nod to the project’s geopolitical importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Five other Latin American countries have now authorized use of the Sputnik V, including Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela.