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August 17, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8896

Putin Gung Ho On New Covid-19 Vaccine, His Countrymen Are More Skeptical

August 17, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8896


Putin announces the registration of the vaccine (Source: Russian.rt.com)

Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced on August 11, 2020, that Russia had registered the world's first vaccine against coronavirus and promised that the vaccine named Sputnik V (a name that recalls Russia's initial scientific primacy in the space race) would be ready for mass production in early 2021.  He also announced that one of his daughters had already been vaccinated.[1] Alexander Ginsburg the head of the Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology that developed the vaccine claimed that the vaccine offered at least two years of immunity.[2] Health Minister Mikhail Murashko reported great demand for the vaccine abroad, but announced that the first shipments would be reserved for domestic use.[3]

Putin's announcement aroused skeptical reactions in the global scientific community. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas voiced his concern: "that the Russians may be skipping such measures and steps is what worries our community of vaccine scientists. If they get it wrong, it could undermine the entire global enterprise." Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London issued a harsher condemnation and feared that Russia had played into the hands of the anti-vaxxers: "This is a reckless and foolish decision. Mass vaccination with an improperly tested vaccine is unethical. Any problem with the Russian vaccination campaign would be disastrous both through its negative effects on health, but also because it would further set back the acceptance of vaccines in the population." [4]

In Russia, Putin's announcement aroused enthusiasm but also skepticism from private individuals and private citizens. Below is a survey of early reaction's to Putin's announcement.

Defending Putin's Announcement

The Federal Service for Surveillance in Healthcare defended the registration of the vaccine even prior to the massive third phase testing: “It is permissible to register a drug in the early stages of a clinical study, and similar schemes exist in the EU and the USA,"  said Sergei Glagolev, chief, of the Department for State Control of Medical Products. Professor Anatoly Altshtein of Gamaleya said that registration was a political and not a scientific decision: “Who can say whether the vaccine was registered too early or not? Such registration is a purely political act. The government decides what is profitable for it... As for the vaccine itself, it has passed the relevant tests, showed good results and should be scrutinized further, a third phase [of trials] is required.” [5]  

The Russia in Global Politics Telegram channel dismissed Western criticism of Putin's announcement: " The announcement of the Russian vaccine worried the West greatly... The fact of the matter is that it was not Putin who started the race for prestige, but political talk about the universal human significance of the vaccine is pure hypocrisy, we are certain. Everyone wants to be the first and solemnly announce this, no one will let someone else’s vaccine into their markets, even if it would be certified three times. So, one shouldn't pay attention to the criticism.[6]

Murashko rebutted the criticisms of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci, who had warned that Russia risks "hurting a lot of people" by rushing the introduction of the vaccine.[7] "This vaccine as a platform is fairly well known and studied. Both clinical and preclinical studies, and registrations for them have already been made, this is actually the safest way. We have a sufficient amount of knowledge."[8]


Russian Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko (Source: Tass.ru)

Many on social media reposted the newspaper Liberation's picture of Putin as James Bond wielding a hypodermic syringe under the caption "Tomorrow You Never Die".


(Source: Polituserforum.ru)

Criticism Of The Announcement

State Employees Will Be Put At Risk To Further Putin's Ambitions

The Malyuta Skuratove Telegram channel with 31,000 members criticized Putin's announcement and its potential repercussions: "Vladimir Putin, with his geopolitical ambitions, is becoming more and more dangerous, and now we are talking about the safety of his own country's population...Russia was the first to announce the registration of a vaccine against coronavirus. ... This time, it ignored all international rules for drug registration and testing. And so that there would be no doubts about international ambitions, [the Kremlin] named the vaccine “Sputnik”, which directly references the USSR's victories in space exploration... The licensed vaccine has not been fully tested in clinical trials except on two groups of 38 volunteers. At the same time, the effectiveness of the vaccine is not known, and its safety is also not fully understood. But it has already been announced that the vaccine will soon be used to vaccinate doctors and teachers. Voluntarily. But we all know what voluntary means for state employees. For the sake of Putin’s geopolitical ambitions, they must put their health at risk."[9]

Anticorruption fighter and Putin adversary Alexei Navalny, wrote the following on his Telegram channel: "I wonder how many people Putin is ready to kill just for the sake of PR lies? Now we proudly say 'we were the first to invent a vaccine against coronavirus'. The whole world laughs, even the WHO says: 'hey guys, you did not pass the third stage of trials, what did you “invent”'? Not a single report / publication in decent scientific journals. And the authors of the vaccine themselves state in their report: 'adverse effects' (AEs) in terms of frequency of occurrence 'can occur frequently or very often.'”[10]

Professional bodies joined the criticism.  the Association of Clinical Research Organizations (ACOI), which includes pharmaceutical companies and research organizations, urged the Russian Ministry of Health to postpone the registration of the vaccine (...) until the end of the third phase of trials: “There is no reason to speed up the development. Accelerated registration will not make Russia a leader in this race, it will only expose the end users of the vaccine, the citizens of the country of the Russian Federation, to unnecessary danger.”[11] The AOCi felt that it was ludicrous to claim that Russia had crossed the finish line first as " there are 26 candidate vaccines in the world, of which six are already being tested with the participation of thousands and tens of thousands of people."[12]

Rosbalt columnist Sergei Shelin observed that the same Glagolev who had justified the registration of the vaccine also announced that "laboratory confirmation of the study, which provides for several thousand volunteers, will take place in the post-registration period." This reminded Shelin of the old Soviet grading practice of "pass with imperfections" – first a pass grade is given on a paper and then the real work is performed. The tests that began on June 17, 2020 and involved 76 healthy volunteers, but since mid-July the state outlets confidently reported that "clinical trials of the coronavirus vaccine have been completed." Shelin concluded: Rules and expertise have long been obsolete in all areas. Instead, there are testimonials from people who have access to the president, the inability to distinguish victory reports from reality." [13]

Doctors Remain Leery

In a survey of 3000 Russian physicians conducted by the "Doctor's Handbook" service, 52% said they were not prepared to be vaccinated by the new vaccine as opposed to 24.5%, who expressed their willingness. When asked about their reasons doubting the vaccine, 66% of the respondents claimed that insufficient data was published on its effectiveness, 48% were deterred by the abbreviated process of developing the vaccine.[14]

 

[1] Lenta.ru, August 11, 2020.

[2] Rbc.ru, August 13, 2020.

[3] Lenta.ru, August 14, 2020.

[4] Nature.com, August 11. 2020.

[5] Mbk-news.appspot.com, August 11, 2020.

[6] T.me/s/ru.global,August 11, 2020.

[7] Marketwatch.com, August 12, 2020.

[8] Rbc.ru, August 14, 2020.

[9] T.me/s/mskuratov, August 12, 2020.

[10] T.me/s/navalny, August 12, 2020.

[11] Mbk-news.appspot.com, August 11, 2020.

[12] Rosbalt.ru, August 11, 2020.

[13] Rosbalt.ru, August 11, 2020.

[14] Rbc.ru, August 14, 2020.

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