Russian president Vladimir Putin made a startling announcement on Tuesday: Not only has his country developed a coronavirus vaccine, it had already been begun administering it to some of its citizens, including his own daughter.
“I know it has proven efficient and forms a stable immunity,” Putin said in a statement about the vaccine. “We must be grateful to those who made that first step very important for our country and the entire world.” Russian officials said the vaccine had been named Sputnik-V, in honor of the world's first satellite and is none-too-subtle nod to the space race contested by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.
Last week in advance of Putin's announcement, the Russia's health minister said the country was preparing to start a mass vaccination program in October.
However, neither last week nor today has the Russian government offered any real proof to back up the claim of the vaccine's safety or effectiveness, and Putin's announcement was greeted with both skepticism and concern by members of the global medical community — and even by those within Putin's own country.
“Fast-tracked approval will not make Russia the leader in the [vaccine] race, it will just expose consumers of the vaccine to unnecessary danger,” Russia’s Association of Clinical Trials Organizations cautioned in a statement issued this week, urging government officials to postpone use of the vaccine until it can conduct more advanced trials.
According to published reports, Putin said the vaccine, developed by Russia's Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, is based on other coronaviruses that cause the common cold (and would prep the body for the more serious COVID-19) and that it would be available to the general public by Jan. 1, 2021.
A spokesman for the World Health Organization said it was "in close contact with the Russian health authorities" about possibly pre-qualifying the vaccine under a program designed to facilitate access to medicines deemed by the WHO to have met "unified standards of quality, safety and efficacy."
Matthew Schmidt, an expert on Russia at the University of New Haven, told NPR that the way the new vaccine has been tested “undermines public faith in it” and that “cheating on the scientific process hurts the perception of vaccine safety everywhere.”
"Even if it works, it's unlikely to be widely adopted in the rest of the world," Schmidt added. "The fears that it's unsafe could even stoke the anti-vaccine movement and drive up the number of people who refuse to be inoculated because it will feed conspiracy theories, in the U.S. and elsewhere."
Among Putin's skeptics is Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who, when asked on Good Morning America about the news out of Russia, said “The point is not to be first with a vaccine, the point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world.” Added Azar, “We need transparent data, and it's got to be Phase 3 data, that shows that a vaccine is safe and effective."
There are currently more than 100 vaccine trials taking place around the world, with one of the most promising being conducted at Oxford University. Researchers there said last month that their trial vaccine, which is being developed jointly by Oxford and AstraZeneca, apparently increased levels of both protective antibodies and immune T-cells that target the virus, raising optimism about its potential effectiveness against COVID-19. More advanced trials are now underway.