Russia has jumped past a number of critical steps in its rush to announce a breakthrough in the development of a vaccine for Covid-19. The vaccine formula was developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow. The vaccine even has a name – Sputnik V – referencing the first orbital satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. The name evokes an earlier ‘race’, in that case the space race. This time Russian President Vladimir Putin is evoking a sense of national pride that his country has been first in the current vaccine race. But many questions over the announced vaccine remain unclear.
Mr. Putin announced yesterday that his country had become the first to approve an experimental coronavirus vaccine. He even boasted that his daughter had already been vaccinated with the experimental vaccine. But global health officials claim that Russia has rushed, or completely missed, critical, large-scale testing that to determine if the vaccine is a possible protection against Covid-19 and that it has proven to be safe and effective. Few details of the Gamaleya research have been made public at this stage. Their research has not undergone peer review.
But none of that is stopping Russian officials pledging to administer the vaccine to millions of people. At the top of their list they are including teachers and front-line health-care workers in the coming weeks. They say they will administer these doses even before even finishing clinical trials.
Russia’s Health Ministry has not responded to requests for comment from world media and the Gamaleya Institute is referring questions to the health ministry.
A member of the Global Virus Network, Konstantin Chumakov, representing a global coalition working on viral threats, says that it’s scientifically impossible to prove efficacy without widespread trials, known as Phase 3.
“Using it in general population before the results of Phase 3 trials are fully studied is a gamble. A Russian roulette, if you will.”
Even President Putin has sprinkled his comments with a note of doubt.
“Of course, what counts most is for us to be able to ensure the unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in the future. I hope that this will be accomplished.”
The surprising announcement comes from a country eager to declare victory amid one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. Global scientists are expressing concern about the speed of the announcement and the admissions that they haven’t completed the full rounds of testing, international standards for the development of vaccines.
They fear the announcement will give Russian citizens a false sense of security about their immunity. Meanwhile China has also authorised an early coronavirus vaccine for use in its military – again ahead of definitive data proving that the vaccine is safe and effective.
J. Stephen Morrison, senior VP at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says that the situation in Russia is “changing the rules and cutting corners”.
“It’s a major development, and it starts with Putin. He needs a win. It’s harking back to the glory days of Russian science; it’s putting the Russian propaganda machine into full gear. I think this could backfire.”
The international jockeying to develop a viable, affordable and safe vaccine is sharpening concerns about “vaccine nationalism”. Countries’ are rushing to declare victory over the pandemic as a statement of national pride and geopolitical clout, and may bypass long-standing safeguards that protect citizens from unproven medical products by ensuring that their benefits outweigh the risks.
Last month, security officials from the US, UK and Canada accused hackers linked to a Russian intelligence service of attempting to steal information from their researchers working to produce coronavirus vaccines. Russian officials denied the claims, and Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled the country’s vaccination effort, dismissed international scrutiny of Russia’s own vaccine efforts as political, according to The Washington Post.
“For countries, it’s difficult to acknowledge that, ‘How is it possible that Russia, which has been always shown as this backward, authoritarian country, can do this?’ ”
SOURCES: Reuters | BBC | Washington Post
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