Observers question Russian-Italian pandemic collaboration

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This article was originally published in Italian on Univadis .

The collaboration between Italy and Russia in the fight against the pandemic began during the darkest days of the first wave of COVID-19. On Saturday, March 21, 2020, at the Pratica di Mare military air base near Rome, nine (although some say it was 13) four-engine Russian planes landed, loaded with medical supplies and medical professionals and equipped with ‘a security detail made up of various members of the Russian Armed Forces.

That same day, Italy reported 6,557 new positive cases of coronavirus. Even if today this figure seems low, it was the highest figure of the first wave. In fact, at the time, the diagnostic capacity was much more limited than it is today: 26,000 swabs were processed daily, whereas today this number is almost half a million. That same Saturday, 793 deaths were recorded, with the true number likely much higher.

When aid arrived from Russia, Italy was in lockdown and in the midst of its worst health crisis since World War II. Given the difficult situation, the mission named “From Russia with Love” was warmly and gratefully received by the authorities. The Russian operations in Italy took place in the provinces of Bergamo and Brescia, which were among the most affected by the pandemic, and lasted almost 2 months.

After the invasion of Ukraine, this 2020 mission again received media attention due to some questionable aspects. One of these aspects is that the mission involved more military personnel than medical professionals. Of the 104 participants, there were 28 doctors (including only two civilians) and 4 nurses. Some, like the general commander of the mission Sergey Kikot, were experts in chemical weapons and bacteriology, more accustomed to the art of war than to the fight against epidemics.

Moreover, the medical supplies brought to Italy did not help much in the fight against the emergency: while Italy needed millions of masks every day, the shipment from Moscow contained only a few hundred thousand. The 150 ventilators provided by Russia also proved dangerous and barely functional.

Intelligence or humanitarian aid?

The way the mission was equipped and staffed made many people think that it might have a different purpose: namely, the collection of Russian intelligence for use against a NATO member country. Even the initial intention of the Russians (to sanitize not only hospitals and health assistance residences, but also public offices, as agreed at the time with the Italian civil protection authorities) raises the question of the spying.

Russian doctors had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the therapeutic protocols in place to treat COVID-19 in Italy, the country that probably had the most expertise in the matter (after China) at the time. Beijing, however, has taken a more scrupulous approach to patient confidentiality.

On the other hand, the Russian mission attracted the attention of the media and official institutions and was subject to controls by these bodies. From the start, various Italian and foreign media documented the arrival of the Russians for an operation with both diplomatic and sanitary objectives. Among NATO member countries, Italy probably has the strongest political relationship with Putin’s Russia. National parties such as the Brothers of Italy, the League, the Five Star Movement and Forza Italia expressed their appreciation for the Russian president on more than one occasion before the conflict.

To examine the possible implications of the Russian operation in terms of national security, the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR) opened an investigation in 2021 through the intelligence services. “From what we can see,” COPASIR said in its 2021 annual report, “the Russian mission was to be carried out exclusively in a health context, with the objective of sanitizing hospitals and health assistance residences, the Russian personnel being escorted by the Italian military.”

European Vaccine Divisions

Supporting the spy theory, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera cited the fact that during the development of Sputnik, the Russian vaccine, a viral sequence was used which came from an Italian source, taken from a Russian citizen returning from a trip to Rome. The citizen had traveled to Italy on March 15, 2020, a week before the Russians arrived. Additionally, as of March 21, Russia was also registering hundreds of COVID-19 cases per day. It would therefore not have been necessary to travel to Italy to collect the biological samples necessary for the development of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.

It was the development of Sputnik, however, that raised doubts about the true meaning of Russian-Italian collaboration in health during the pandemic. Although the vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow and despite the fact that it was never recommended by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), many local government officials – such as the presidents of Lombardy , Veneto, Campania and Lazio – offered to buy vaccine doses independently from Brussels (a choice made by the anti-European Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, which was also proposed by other continental powers ).

They also proposed the direct production of the Russian vaccine in Italy. Many statements to this effect were made between February and March 2021, a period during which Italy was awaiting, with a significant delay, the delivery of the other vaccines acquired by the European Union. If the European alliance had been broken on the issue of vaccines, EU governments would have found themselves competing with each other for sufficient doses, without respecting EMA recommendations, with prices increasing and reduced security for citizens.

The Lazio region, following an impulsive decision by health adviser Alessio D’Amato, has gone further than the other regions, establishing a stable scientific collaboration between the Gamaleya Institute and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases Lazzaro Spallanzani in Rome. Thanks to this partnership, several studies have been undertaken in which the Spallanzani Institute has been responsible for confirming the effectiveness of the Russian vaccine both in primary and booster vaccination.

The most recent of these studies, published in January on medRxiv only and which has not been peer-reviewed, concluded that “the most effective approach, already demonstrated in several studies, is the use of a heterologous booster vaccination initiated in COVID-19 vaccines by Sputnik V”, which proved to be better than that of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine.

However, the scientific community has expressed great bewilderment over the studies of the Russian vaccine. The Russian researchers were unwilling to share the data they had collected with their colleagues, nor was the source of funding for the studies apparent. Finally, an investigation by the Italian newspaper La Stampa found that to begin the lawsuit at the Spallanzani Institute, Russian officials had offered $250,000 to a senior director of the research institute. With the start of the invasion of Ukraine and the increase in Russian sanctions, the Spallanzani Institute also had to suspend its collaboration with the Gamaleya Institute.

Some media, like Corriere della Sera, suggest a link between the Russian mission in Bergamo and the collaboration between Rome and Moscow on the vaccine, but they lack concrete evidence. In any case, it would be reasonable to think that in both cases, Russia used pandemic and SARS-CoV-2 research as a means of exerting soft power – namely, to influence how Russia is seen through Italy’s international position. , without the use of force.

However, through ongoing investigations, it remains to be established whether this use of soft power also involved the manipulation of scientific evidence and whether there was collusion between local politicians and a country already subject to sanctions. Finally, questions remain as to whether there has been corruption within Italy’s national health service.

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