Why we should be rooting for Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine

At the time of the writing of this article, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread globally. Tens of millions have been infected and hundreds of thousands have died since the novel virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late 2019.

Since the virus began spreading beyond China’s borders, massive research efforts to discover and produce vaccines and treatments are underway that are unprecedented in medical history.  

On August 11, it was announced after much speculation that Russia’s Gamaleya Institute had produced and tested a vaccine. As a reference to the scientific capabilities of the former Soviet Union, it was later revealed that the vaccine was to be named “Sputnik V.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself remarked that his own daughter had been given the test vaccine, with the only side-effect being a slightly elevated temperature. The news was received warmly in all parts of the country, especially considering that Russia is one of the countries with the highest infection rates, albeit steadily decreasing over the past several weeks.  

Some of the international reactions to the registration of the first Covid-19 vaccine were immensely positive. India, which is among the countries with the highest occurrence rates of the virus, has expressed interest in assisting Russia in the mass development of Sputnik V.

The Hadassah Medical Center in Israel has said that Russia has “developed a really wonderful [vaccine]” and has offered to assist Russia in further trials of the vaccine.

Other countries willing to cooperate with Russia on the distribution of Sputnik V include Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates.   

However, the reactions from other corners of the world have been less than optimistic. Given the state of the Covid-19 pandemic, one would logically expect the world to react positively to what would objectively be good news. Regrettably, this was not the case.

The negative response to this advancement was something never before seen in scientific history. Even upon the Soviet’s launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, the staunchly anti-Communist United States still had the good graces to congratulate the USSR on their achievement.

The vast majority of scientists and public health officials raising alarms over Sputnik V are from countries that have seen a deterioration in relations with Russia over the past decade, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, and various countries within the European Union.  

The most moderate of the skeptics explained that they were restraining themselves from celebrating this milestone until Russia releases the scientific data that was compiled in Phase I and II studies, testing the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Impartially speaking, this is a perfectly valid concern.

The director of the Gamaleya Institute, Alexander Gintsburg, has stated that the existing data will be published before long. Perhaps, once this data is released this will convince some of the skeptics of the safety and efficacy of Sputnik V.

However, with the emergence of a new phenomenon dubbed “Vaccine nationalism,” it is very possible that these cynics are only using the current lack of data as an excuse, and that they will never accept a vaccine that comes out of Russia, regardless of what the data looks like.   

The critics of Sputnik V continually claim that Russia “cut corners” during the vaccine trials, and therefore, they assume that the vaccine cannot be proved to be either safe or effective. To some extent, they are not completely wrong. 

Under normal circumstances, the process to develop, test, and distribute a vaccine takes at least five years, and that’s with the assumption that the process goes along without any delays or other issues, which is a rarity.

It is a certainty that any company or research institute which is planning on rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine within the next year is cutting corners. To accuse Russia of doing so, while the rest of the world does the same, is the epitome of hypocrisy.

The same critics also fail to mention that Russia was able to produce this vaccine very quickly by being able to adapt vaccines that have already progressed much further. One such vaccine that Russia has been developing for years now is meant to be protective against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which is a virus that is very closely related to Covid-19.  

The mass deployment of vaccines whose development has been accelerated in public health emergencies is also not without precedent. 

During the West African Ebola outbreak which spread for two years starting in 2014, a vaccine that had not yet been properly completed was deployed in the countries with the highest rates of patients testing positive for Ebola. Even though the research and production of the vaccine were rushed, there were very little concerns about “cutting corners.” 

Instead, the international medical community realized that there was a unique health crisis going on, and almost unanimously decided to forego the usual red-tape in vaccine development for the sake of global health. The Ebola outbreak that occurred only a couple years later in the Democratic Republic of Congo saw the deployment of not only the same experimental vaccine but also of several other experimental therapeutic drugs.

At this point, according to the Gamaleya Institute, Sputnik V has successfully passed Phase I and II trials, in which a trial vaccine is evaluated for both safety and its ability to elicit a strong immune response in the majority of subjects.

Under normal circumstances, a vaccine that has only progressed this far should not be released to the public. These are not normal circumstances, however, and being dismissive of any advancements just because they are coming from a geopolitical rival does not benefit anyone. All it does is prolong the crisis and subject even more people to contracting and succumbing to Covid-19.    

Cooperation between the various countries leading in scientific advancements is a necessity, even more so during a global pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Spanish Flu outbreak following World War I.

It would be wise to follow the example set by the Soviet Union and the United States decades ago, when both set aside their ideological differences to advance science which ultimately benefited humanity, the prime example being the eradication of Smallpox.

Regrettably, the world in which such a thing is possible was left behind many decades ago, and the geopolitical issues which have arisen within the past decade have spilled over into what was once the relatively neutral field of vaccine development and distribution.  

Written by Mark Mednikov with the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).