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Is Russia first to a Covid-19 vaccine? Not so fast.

Health experts say it’s irresponsible.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends inauguration ceremonies for Defense Ministry medical centers via video.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends via video the inauguration ceremonies for new medical centers built by Russia’s Defense Ministry in the Dagestan, Voronezh, and Penza regions.
Alexei Druzhinin/TASS via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The entire world wants an effective Covid-19 vaccine. This week, Russia claimed it has one.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country had become the first to register a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. “I know that it works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks,” Putin said on state-run television, according to Reuters. His daughter has even received it, he added.

The vaccine is called “Sputnik V,” a sign Russia very much sees this as a tool of propaganda. “In 1957 the successful launch of the first space satellite by the Soviet Union reinvigorated space research around the world,” the website explains. “The new Russian COVID-19 vaccine is therefore called Sputnik V.”

But scientists and health experts around the world are deeply skeptical of Putin’s claim of efficacy, and worry that a premature announcement of success could cause harm. Unlike other leading efforts to develop a vaccine in countries including the United Kingdom, China, and the United States, Russia bypassed large-scale trials, or phase three trials, where the vaccine is administered to thousands of people. Those trials are critically important to find out how effective the vaccine is, and whether participants experience any less common side effects undetected in the first rounds.

The Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow developed the vaccine but hasn’t shared many of its findings. According to Jon Cohen at Science Magazine, the vaccine has only been tested in 76 people.

Russia has been telegraphing the vaccine announcement, with Putin framing it as a major achievement at home and abroad. It’s the latest example of “vaccine nationalism,” where discovery and distribution becomes a competition, and countries try to advance their own interests before those of the global community. But the risks of pushing an untested and unvetted vaccine are grave, and could have stunning consequences for public health and trust in the safety of vaccines more broadly.

“The hard part is ensuring quality control, quality assurance, and showing that the vaccine actually works and is safe,” Peter Hotez, an expert in vaccine development and dean at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told me. “I worry the Russians may have skipped the most important step.”

If geopolitics co-opts science and cooperation, the world loses out. “We have the Chinese vaccine, the American vaccine, the British vaccine, now the Russian vaccine — and it’s not supposed to work that way,” Hotez said. “It’s counterproductive, and ultimately, it reduces the likelihood that people across the world will have access to vaccines.”

What to know about this Russian vaccine

Last month, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom accused hackers tied to Russian intelligence of trying to probe their drug companies and research groups. The Russians denied the charges, because, they said, they didn’t need any help. Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said the hacking allegations represented a smear campaign “because the Russian vaccine could potentially be the first to the market and it could potentially be the most effective vaccine out there.”

In that way, Russia has been touting its vaccine success since before Putin declared it on Tuesday.

What little is known about the vaccine suggests it’s using a technology similar to one being pursued by other firms in some other vaccine trials around the world. Specifically, researchers are using a type of adenovirus, which can cause the common cold. According to Science News, Russia’s vaccine includes a dose and then a booster shot.

But the lab hasn’t shared or published its findings. Paul Offit, a University of Pennsylvania vaccine expert, told Politico that when it came to data on Russia’s vaccine, “We’re relying on the word of Vladimir Putin.”

The premature approval has many scientists and experts worried about what Russia did to even get to this phase, and that Russia could begin vaccinating people either at home or abroad without having done the necessary due diligence.

Judy Twigg, an expert in Russian politics and health at the Virginia Commonwealth University, told me it’s very clear that the “message from the top down in Russia to those labs has been that it’s okay to cut corners, it’s okay to accelerate the process, circumvent what would normally be required phases of clinical trials. The message has been it’s okay to do that in order to get us out of the gate first.”

Russia has denied that it’s gone rogue in its vaccine development process. Dmitriev told reporters Tuesday that “no corners have been cut,” according to CBS News. “Russian science is more advanced in this [area] than many other nations,” he added.

A World Health Organization spokesperson, citing experts at the agency, told Vox it’s aware that Russia has registered a Covid-19 vaccine, and welcomes “all advances in Covid-19 research and development.”

But, the WHO spokesperson added, while it’s important to invest in treatment and vaccines, it can’t be done by compromising safety. “WHO reiterates that accelerating vaccine research should be done following established processes through every step of development, to ensure that any vaccines that eventually go into production are both safe and effective.”

This doesn’t mean the vaccine can’t successfully and safely protect against the coronavirus — we just don’t have the evidence yet. Twigg pointed out that post-Soviet Russia has a bit of a history of making premature claims about scientific and technical progress. As the Associated Press noted, Putin has bragged about the effectiveness of its Ebola vaccines, though there’s little data to suggest they were widely used.

And there’s no better time than during a global pandemic for Russia to try to flex its science credentials.

This is straight from Putin’s playbook

Putin’s announcement, in a lot of ways, is about as textbook Putin as it comes. This has to do with his chance to assert Russian power to the rest of the world, and for him to bolster his own position domestically.

In Russia, this was supposed to be Putin’s year — a big parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, a vote to basically keep him in power for life. But the coronavirus derailed many of Putin’s plans, especially as Russia struggled to contain the pandemic. Putin has seen some of his lowest trust ratings ever, and though they’re high compared to Western countries, it’s a sign of his flagging support.

Chris Miller, a Russia expert and assistant professor of international history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said this is a way for Putin to reassert himself. “And, of course, this comes after months where Russia’s done relatively badly compared to its closest neighbors in terms of actually suppressing Covid,” Miller said. “So in some ways, this helps turn the narrative around at home.”

This is Putin’s big win, one he can sell to Russians, a reminder that he’s still their guy, a reliable leader. And, he can brag that Russia battled the US, the UK, and China and everyone else trying to develop a vaccine, and won. “For a country that, I think, has long coveted its science expertise but has been perceived — both by Russians and by the world — as lagging in science and technology over the past couple of decades, this is seen by the government as a way to assert Russian scientific prowess on the international stage,” Miller said.

Putin wants the rest of the world to believe in Russia, too. Almost two dozen countries have expressed some interest in Russia’s vaccine. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he’d be a “guinea pig” and would take it. Brazil has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Moscow to potentially produce the vaccine in 2021.

“Russia is clearly trying to forge alliances and enhance its global positioning,” Twigg said.

In this way, Russia may be using its vaccine “victory” to try to bolster its geopolitical status as a world power and global health leader. Russia talking to other countries about distributing a vaccine isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is deeply concerning because it hasn’t yet proved to be safe and effective. This is vaccine diplomacy at its worst — an attempt by Russia to assert itself politically, without giving much consideration to humanitarian concerns. “That’s not what you’re supposed to use vaccines for — especially ones that you don’t know necessarily if they’re safe and effective,” Hotez said. “This even has this smell of Cold War meddling to it.”

As the United States has retreated from multilateral institutions, including the World Health Organization, Russia can seize the opportunity and try to fill the void — much in the way most expected China to do. The US-China rivalry had also been at the forefront of the quest for a vaccine, but now Russia gets to muscle its way into the conversation and carve out its own sphere of influence, too.

“I think there is a sense in Russia that the past couple of years have provided some opportunity with the tension between the US and China growing for Russia to assert itself as another pole of power and influence in the world stage,” Miller said. “You see that in the military sphere, you see that in the diplomatic sphere, but also, I think, this is another way to buttress that.”

Russia’s announcement makes the world’s quest for a vaccine even riskier

As some experts told me, Russia’s vaccine endeavor is extraordinarily risky — for the Russian people and for the rest of the world.

If its vaccine isn’t safe or effective, it could potentially offset and undermine the public’s broader trust in vaccines, something that’s especially concerning in low- and middle-income countries that already lack the resources to control the pandemic and may rely on foreign or outside aide for public health and vaccination initiatives.

Imagine the Russians skip over large-scale, phase three trials entirely, Twigg said, “and they just start giving this vaccine. And those side effects start unexpectedly to show up. Can you imagine how the anti-vaxxers are going to pick up that ball and run with it?”

Vaccines often have side effects, but phase three data can show exactly what the risks are. Even if those risks are minor, if people don’t know what to expect, this adds to mistrust and fear.

There’s also the risk that the vaccine, without large-scale testing, just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well enough, or doesn’t last very long. This could give recipients, and governments, a false sense of security, leading to the abandonment of public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing. And that means the coronavirus could roar back.

It’s also not clear if Russia’s vaccine will be affordable, or what access will look like — will it be equitably distributed, or widely available? As the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, equitable and affordable access worldwide will be critical to halting outbreaks.

Experts I spoke to did not necessarily think that Russia’s announcement would lead other countries or vaccine-makers to cut corners or try to accelerate the process. In a way, it might even help bolster it; Russia’s vaccine might be first, but the US or China could claim its vaccine is the best because it followed the proper protocols. Even so, Russia’s move spoke to a kind of Wild West in the global health sphere at a time when both cooperation and scientific rigor are the best defenses to defeat the pandemic.

Ana B. Amaya, a global health expert and assistant professor at Pace University, told me that political interests always risk overtaking good public health practices, because there isn’t any way to really force countries to obey a set of rules. But transparency is key, she said. The more likely that everyone can have confidence that Russia’s vaccine actually works is a good thing — including, very much so, for Russia.

“The very important part right now is getting the science right, and making sure that we’re producing the vaccine that’s actually going to be safe and help people against Covid-19,” she said.

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