Everyone has already heard that the Russians did it again—they launched the world’s first Sputnik. This time, however, it refers not to a satellite or a state-run news agency, but to an experimental Covid-19 vaccine that has been officially registered in Russia and announced by President Putin for widespread use.
Moscow has clearly lacked creativity in branding amid the pandemic, but it seems to be doing perfectly well in modern biotechnologies (the development of a replication-defective adenovirus-based hybrid vaccine), which can be leveraged by Mr Putin to score political gains and by the Russian scientific community to improve their credibility profile. The news about the vaccine being tested on one of the Russian leader’s daughters was enough to cause quite a stir and show the seriousness of the approach to accomplishing the task.“One of my daughters had this vaccine. In this sense she took part in the experiment,”Mr Putin said. Then right after that, The Washington Post wrote: “Officials have pledged to administer the possible vaccine to millions of people this summer and fall—including tens of thousands of teachers and front-line health-care workers in the coming weeks, before even finishing clinical trials. The formula was developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow.” A scenario worthy of a sci-fi action film, set in an alternative future, such as good old Demolition Man. The question is, how much does this interpretation of developments reflect the reality—both from Moscow’s perspective and that of the skeptics who will readily argue against any advances or risks in someone’s research, driven by their own geopolitical and business interests?
Let us look at the facts.
Under Russian law, a new vaccine cannot undergo phase three clinical trials, which involve testing on certain risk groups, without temporary registration. Registration is provided after phases one and two, which are intended only to verify that the product doesn’t have any serious adverse effects on health. That means Sputnik-V was registered temporarily, until 1 January 2021. So, it is not about “Russia being the first, “as they write on the Internet, it is rather about testing the vaccine for efficacy—phase three trials should be conducted during three months involving two thousand participants from risk groups. Not “millions.” Besides, where would they get so many doses of an experimental vaccine and such a large number of volunteers?
However, there is another group of people that will be offered the vaccinate—medical workers. As the pandemic across the world has shown, the disease and death rate among them is much higher, but at the same time they are more responsible and better informed about the risks and capabilities of the vaccine. They are the ones who will participate in voluntary vaccination at the end of August, which is not part of the official phase three trials. It is them who Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a government-controlled fund that invested in the development and production of the vaccine, referred to saying: “We expect tens of thousands of volunteers to be vaccinated within the next months.” Statistics can hardly be used here to assess the overall quality of the vaccine, but it would certainly provide an additional outlook on its effectiveness.
By the way, why did Russian microbiologists claim from the very beginning that the future vaccine would be highly effective? This is exactly what raised concern among experts that Russia’s vaccine “could be harmful or give people a false sense of security about their immunity.”However, those who believe so don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge that the reason behind such a rapid pace of vaccine development in Moscow has to do with two things—the existing scientific legacy and scientific luck. In terms of technology, Russian scientists used an adenovirus-based design developed years ago, which they thoroughly tested and licensed as it proved to work effectively for the vaccines against the Ebola virus and MERS (related to Covid-19)—the one to which the Russians managed to attach Coronavirus protein that should be targeted by the immune system, developing long-term protection. Such methods are enabled by modern biotechnologies. Will they do the trick? Phase three trials will show, but experts say there is little ground for skepticism (given that phases one and two resulted in 100 percent of the volunteers generating antibodies after taking the vaccine).
We must not forget, though, that in the midst of a pandemic, it is better to have a vaccine that is effective on four out of five than to have none at all. Many people understand that. Curiously enough, other countries citizens will be among the first to get Russia’s experimental vaccine. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Brazil, among other countries, have already expressed their willingness to participate in phase three clinical trials for Sputnik-V.
Hence, what The Washington Post said is post-truth, or simply fake news—not for the first time, though. Moscow, in turn, is rushing to score political points and gain the upper hand in the global Covid-19 vaccine market, but it does so strictly within the legal framework, guided by its own logic and research methods that draw on past experience. The news website Atlantico, with reference to a French researcher, rightly notes: “Naturally, Russian researchers are expected to be sufficiently transparent about the vaccine, but they are only required to comply with their own regulations. This partly explains that they advance faster than European countries, which are severely hampered by the European Union’s regulatory patchwork (about which there are many complaints).” The so-called “deep state” always works against progress and real science, didn’t you know that?
Laugh all you want at cartoons that feature Mr Putin holding a syringe, but there is no escaping the fact that the world needs a vaccine — the sooner the better. The global economy may not be able to cope with another massive lockdown. So, let us wish every success to Russian scientists, as well as all other researchers regardless of the political regime or country they work in.