In Vaccine Geopolitics, a Great Game Played With Ukrainians’ Health

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“Russia is pursuing an active policy of aggression, even with the vaccines,” said Oleksandr Linchevsky, a former deputy health minister. “It’s in Russia’s political interest that Ukraine receive the vaccines from elsewhere as late as possible,” because it wants to fill the gap with its own vaccine.

Ukraine, with a population of 42 million, is scheduled to receive eight million vaccine doses under the Covax program that supplies low- and middle-income countries that might not otherwise be able to gain access to vaccines. But those doses are not due to arrive until at least March. Negotiations for Western shipments later in the year are continuing, Mr. Stepanov said.

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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

Before President Trump’s executive order banning vaccine exports from the United States, Ukraine had been in talks with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to speed up delivery. Although the negotiations are continuing, the delivery times are being pushed back.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has barely contained his outrage at his country winding up far back in the line for vaccines despite its precarious geopolitical position.

Russia has for six years been backing a separatist war in two eastern provinces of Ukraine while trying to drive a wedge between Kyiv and its Western allies. Vaccine politics are playing into the Kremlin’s hand.

“We are supposed to be like political acrobats to manage to get into a priority list” for vaccines, Mr. Zelensky said in an interview last month. The American export ban, he said, “put Ukraine at the end of the line.” In an end-of-the-year statement to Ukrainians, Mr. Zelensky wrote bitterly that, unfortunately, “the richest” countries would have vaccines first.

In late December, Ukraine hastened talks with Sinovac Biotech, a Chinese supplier, announcing on New Year’s Eve an order for 1.9 million doses, for delivery in early February. That is hardly enough, but still a geopolitical victory for China, providing a measure of relief when Western countries have looked the other way.

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