Russia’s Coronavirus Vaccine: A (Turning) Point of Contention

The competition for a vaccine to combat the coronavirus exacerbates tensions and conflicts among global communities, and Russia’s assumed hastiness adds insult to injury.

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By Anna Ast

Russian president Vladimir V. Putin announced that Russia had become the first country to approve a vaccine for COVID-19 on August 11. With many regions in the world ravaged by the global pandemic and researchers left scrambling to develop a vaccine, it’s easy to assume that Putin’s announcement would be met with approval; however, with a little further digging, it becomes clear the situation is just as grim, if not more than before.

Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine, was developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow. It will be administered in two doses made of two adenoviruses, which are DNA viruses discovered in adenoid tissue. Adenoids are a patch of tissue located high in the throat and behind the nasal cavity. They, along with the tonsils, trap germs coming in through the mouth and nose. The two adenoviruses used, Ad26 and Ad5, cause the common cold but have been genetically modified to carry a coronavirus gene. Thus, the cells that the modified virus infects are capable of creating proteins resembling those from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. This development approach is similar to the one used in a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca that is now undergoing clinical trials in Britain, Brazil and South Africa. However, modifying adenoviruses to develop vaccines is a new technology, with the first adenovirus vaccine for any disease being approved for Ebola just two months ago. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that a COVID-19 vaccine developed with the same technology would be met with much skepticism.

Furthermore, this new vaccine has been condemned as “beyond stupid” because Russia hasn’t completed Phase III trials of the vaccine. Phase I and Phase II have been completed, with the vaccine being tested on relatively small groups of people to see if it causes harm and stimulates the immune system. But while the results are promising, Phase III cannot be overlooked because it compares the vaccine to a placebo in tens of thousands of people and can reveal uncommon side effects that may not have shown up in the few people tested in earlier phases. Vaccines, unlike experimental drugs, are intended to be administered to masses of healthy people, not those who are sick. As such, vaccines need to be subjected to rigorous clinical trials because a rare side effect showing up even once every 10,000 people can result in thousands of complications when the vaccine is administered on a mass scale. Testing more people in Phase III provides researchers with enough data to perform cross-examination and determine safety standards regarding who the vaccine should and shouldn’t be administered to. Currently, there’s a severe lack of data about Russia’s vaccine: aside from a little bit of information from two early-stage trials, there have been no results or studies published on Sputnik V. The lack of information makes it harder for other communities and countries to trust the validity of Russia’s announcement. Clearly, it’s not enough to say your own vaccine works. You need others to look at your vaccine and data and be convinced that it works.

Moving forward, according to the TASS Rusian News Agency, Phase III testing of Russia’s vaccine is set to happen in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Purchase requests for one billion doses have been received from 20 countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. If successful, the vaccine could be a geopolitical boon for Russia.

The consequences of Russia’s hasty approach to the coronavirus vaccine are two-fold: the implications it has for Russia as a country and the repercussions on the global enterprise. There are concerns that Putin’s announcement of the rushed vaccine, which was greeted with a mixture of pride and skepticism from the Russian public, is designed to improve his public image and foreign relations. Over the past year, his approval ratings have dropped: according to a poll carried out by the independent Levada Center in Russia, they went from 68 percent in January to 59 percent in April. His passive management of the pandemic may have contributed to the decline, leaving other officials without direction and hesitant to call a state of emergency. These ratings are a historic low for the political figure who has governed Russia since 1999.

Putin has also stumbled in foreign affairs, with Russian troops stuck in Syria and Libya in an effort to help the Syrian Civil War. But his handling of domestic affairs has been rocky as well. He does not have a concrete plan for resolving the economic crisis, as the pandemic has flattened the prices of oil and other natural resources which fuel (pun not intended) the Russian economy. Though these reasons do not justify the dangers of Russia’s vaccine, they do shed some light as to why this vaccine may be what Putin needs for the public and global communities to restore their faith in him. The name “Sputnik V” is already an example of propaganda, reminiscent of how Russia beat the U.S. in creating the first satellite.

That being said, the vaccine increases tensions and outrage among researchers and scientists. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, argues that “the Russians may be skipping such measures and steps....[which] worries our community of vaccine scientists. If they get it wrong, it could undermine the entire global enterprise.” Others such as Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, call Russia’s decision “reckless and foolish” and “would further set back the acceptance of vaccines in the population” while giving cause to the anti-vaccine movement.

It is worth noting that even without Russia’s abrupt announcement, many countries are already strained from the ongoing race to develop a successful vaccine, some of which may also be cutting corners themselves. There are more than 30 vaccines—out of a total of more than 165 under development—that are in various stages of human trials. China and the United States, with an effort called Operation Warp Speed, have both poured millions of dollars into the pursuit. Chinese companies are selectively testing their vaccines on small pools of people like employees at PetroChina, one of the biggest oil companies in the country, a strategy that deviates from the orthodox clinical trials. The FDA gave emergency approval for expanded use of blood plasma to help coronavirus patients on August 23. This was met with disapproval from officials like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who claims that this decision comes in light of the political pressure the FDA is facing to approve drugs.

This vaccine is a demonstration of the heightened urgency with which countries are approaching the pandemic and the global consequences of what can happen when it causes countries to take shortcuts. The controversy brings to attention the lack of regulations in place for vaccine approval. Whatever the results of Russia’s vaccine may be, they will come with a valuable lesson for the rest of the world.