Vaccine nationalism: Russia ushers in relic of Cold War era races

Naming the vaccine 'Sputnik V' can be considered as signalling towards victory in the vaccine race

Vladimir Putin
Russia proudly claims Sputnik-V as the first vaccine against coronavirus to be registered in the world. At present, phase III trials are on in Russia, involving at least 40,000 people.

In what can arguably be considered as a reference to the different technology races of the Cold War period, Russia has gone on to name the CoV2 vaccine ‘Sputnik V’. This can be considered as signalling towards victory in the vaccine race by Russia.

The name, Sputnik V, is an obvious reference to the first orbital satellite, launched by the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1957 which set off a global space race. The intention behind this naming by the Putin government in the context of the vaccine race is likely to be seen as a point of national pride and competition on a global scale, with labs globally in the lookout for a potential vaccine.

Russia, which has the fourth-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world (more than 800,000) is far from being the lone runner in this vaccine hunt. It is competing against other countries, including those in the European Union; the United States and China are in the race for the prestige of having been the first teams to crack the vaccine candidate. Currently, testing is underway on at least five experimental vaccines in China and four in the US. About 160 such vaccine candidates are currently in the fray globally.

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“Russia has become the first in the world to approve a vaccine for the coronavirus,” President Vladimir Putin announced today. “Of course, what counts most for us is to be able to ensure unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in future. I hope this will be accomplished,” he said adding that one of his two daughters had received the potential vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow.

Earlier in the day, Minzdrav (the Russian health ministry) had approved the vaccine. Minzdrav is the Russian federal body responsible for drafting and implementing government health policies and regulations in the area of healthcare including the approval of the vaccine. The vaccine is yet to complete clinical trials and is currently believed to be in the second phase. President Putin announced its approval after less than two months of human testing. It is based on adenovirus and contains dead CoV2 virus particles that cannot multiply.

Related news: Russia approves COVID vaccine ‘Sputnik’, Putin says daughter inoculated

The vaccine, believed to be with an immuno-booster (two doses) round, had proven successful during the clinical trial. Russia’s defense ministry had announced in early June that two groups of volunteers had been selected for the Phase 1 clinical tests of an anti-coronavirus vaccine.

According to the Defense Ministry, “An in-ward treatment of the first group of volunteers, who were tested for the safety and tolerability of the vaccine, ended on July 15.” “On Monday, July 13, the second group of volunteers, who were tested for the efficiency and immunogenicity of the vaccine, were again injected with the second component of the vaccine against the coronavirus,” the ministry stated.

“Very unfortunate… (This is) a more distorted version of vaccine nationalism that Dr. Soumya (Swaminathan) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) had warned against,” says a scientist and retired professor of bioinformatics at Madurai Kamaraj University.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan had last week cautioned against “vaccine nationalism”, saying it was in “everybody’s self-interest” to cooperate and take an equitable approach to global vaccine distribution and deployment. Addressing the commencement lecture of the incoming class of 2021 at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, she had said, “The argument we are making is that it would be impossible to go back to normal, for the global economy to recover, if only pockets of people are protected, while the virus rips through other economies.”

Related news: COVID-19: Indian vaccines in global race to end pandemic

Minzdrav officials have been quoted as intending to vaccinate millions of people, mostly frontline healthcare workers starting later this month. In Russia’s push to get the vaccine for the Cov2  novel coronavirus out quickly, researchers had tested formulas on themselves while some members of the military were also selected for ‘random trials’.

“Russia has received a request for the production of 1 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology from 20 states,” said Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), during a webinar.

Russian state news agency Tass quoted Dmitriev: “As of today, several Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian states have expressed interest in purchasing the Russian vaccine. Several contracts have been finalised.” He noted that RDIF has agreed to hold the third stage of clinical trials of the COVID-19 vaccine abroad, in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other states.

Related news: Expert panel on COVID-19 vaccine administration to meet on Wednesday

“The vaccine against the coronavirus infection developed in Russia may cause certain changes in the human body, but they are of short-term nature and are directed at protection of the body,” Leo Bokeria, president of Russia’s Bakulev National Medical Research Center of Cardiovascular Surgery told Tass.

Politics over science

Russia’s charge ahead toward a vaccine, however, has raised a lot of questions among health experts that it is bypassing critical large-scale testing which is essential to determine if a possible CoV2 vaccine is safe and effective. Details of the Gamaleya research, such as antibody levels and diagnosis dosage response, have neither been made public nor have undergone global peer review.

Russia’s announcement of the vaccine comes despite a warning last week from the WHO that Russian healthcare authorities should not stray from the usual methods of testing a vaccine for its safety and effectiveness.

The speed at which Russia is going ahead to roll out the vaccine has prompted some international scientists to question whether Russia is putting ‘vaccine nationalism’ — national prestige and pride — ahead of solid evidence-backed science and safety.

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