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U.K., Russia Make Strides Toward Coronavirus Vaccine Distribution

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United Kingdom and Russia both made big announcements this week. The U.K. became the first nation to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Russia had already approved its own vaccine, though, with science that is less transparent and apparently less complete. And this week, President Vladimir Putin ordered a mass immunization program. NPR correspondents Frank Langfitt and Lucian Kim are in London and Moscow, respectively, covering these stories. Hi there, gentlemen.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Frank, what does the public think of the U.K. announcement?

LANGFITT: I think generally positive and the government here is taking a point - it basically sees it as a point of pride that they're getting this - they're sort of the first mover on this vaccine. But there's also concern about maybe this was approved a little too quickly. Earlier this week, of course, Anthony Fauci actually said he thought maybe it had been rushed through. This morning, he walked that back on the BBC, saying he had a great deal of confidence in the regulatory process here. But another challenge, Steve, could be public attitude. There was a poll that came out Wednesday from YouGov - 1 in 5 people here saying they're not confident in the safety of the vaccine. I've been to anti-vax rallies here before, so the government is going to have to really instill some confidence and make people feel more comfortable with it. And Matt Hancock, he's the health secretary, he said he's willing to go on television and get vaccinated in front of the country.

INSKEEP: Oh. Which is something that presidents, former presidents, are willing to do here in the United States. When will most people have access, assuming they agree to take the vaccine?

LANGFITT: OK. So it's going to take quite a while. And so there was this euphoria earlier this week when this happened. But I'll give you an example. The first people who are going to get it are folks in nursing homes. They are the most vulnerable. But you remember with this vaccine, it's got to be stored in ultracold temperatures. Nursing homes aren't going to probably have that infrastructure. So they may have to go to hospitals. We're in - you know, we're not - we don't have great numbers right now with COVID. So they're going to have to be careful about transporting people to hospitals. So it's going to take a lot more time to roll this out. That's what I'm hearing from my sources here.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's go to Moscow now where Lucian Kim is standing by. What is the vaccine that Russia's President Putin wants to begin using?

KIM: Well, the vaccine is called Sputnik V and it's one of several vaccines being developed in Russia. It's interesting after Pfizer made its first announcement in November that its vaccine was more than 90% effective, the makers of Sputnik V came out and said it was 92% effective. And there's been this sort of upping of the ante since then. Sputnik V now says its efficacy is over 95%. Scientists say this isn't really statistically significant, and they complain they haven't seen the raw data behind these announcements. In any case, anything over 90% is high. And the makers of Sputnik V are looking for international partners to manufacture the vaccine, including in India and South Korea.

INSKEEP: OK. I trust it's not a coincidence that it would be called Sputnik, the same name as the first satellite that was sent into orbit by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Is it a coincidence that Putin would issue his order for mass vaccination on the same day that Britain made this big announcement about approving a vaccine?

KIM: Well, considering the way the makers of Sputnik V have kept raising the effectiveness of their vaccine, it may not be a coincidence. What makes Sputnik V different from Western vaccines is not the science but the politics behind it. It's being developed by a government research institute with government money. And Putin has really turned - President Putin has turned this vaccine into his pet project. Back in August, he personally announced the registration of Sputnik V by the Russian Health Ministry. As you just mentioned, Sputnik is also the name of the Soviet Union's first satellite. So in some ways, the Kremlin sees vaccine development as a mini space race to raise Russia's prestige. But at the same time, Steve, it has to be said, there's a long tradition of developing vaccines in Russia, so it's entirely possible Sputnik V will be a success.

INSKEEP: Sure, lots of smart scientists. Frank, what are the politics of the announcement in the U.K. where you are?

LANGFITT: Well, I think there is - it's a little like what Lucian's talking about, actually, in Moscow. The government here seems to take great pride in this. And I want you to hear - this is my favorite tape of the week. This is Gavin Williamson. He's the education secretary. He's crowing earlier this week on LBC. That's talk radio here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN WILLIAMSON: I just reckon we've got the very best people in this country and we've obviously got the best medical regulators, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn't surprise me at all because we are a much better country than every single one of them.

LANGFITT: And this - I think some people see this as driven by insecurity of the government in Britain's place in the world. We're about to end the Brexit transition period. There's still no free trade deal. The U.K. is going to be going off on its own. And it looks like the British government is trying to say, hey, we can do it faster than everybody else. But I would remind everybody listening that this vaccine was actually developed by a German company and a U.S. company.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, that's NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is outside of London, and NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow following up on big vaccine announcements in both Russia and the U.K. Gentlemen, thanks to you both.

KIM: Thank you.

LANGFITT: Great to talk to, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.