The Russian president’s announcement of the first recorded COVID-19 vaccine has caused the rest of the world to raise their eyebrows. No one expects anything from Moscow on a scientific or medical level
If the race for the coronavirus vaccine were a marathon, what Russia did this Tuesday is equivalent to showing up at the finish line half an hour before the rest of the participants, without having sweated a drop, with all the earmarks of having taken the meter and yet declaring himself the winner of the competition.
On Tuesday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, he addressed all the ministers of his cabinet by videoconference with serious countenance and announced—or rather, to the rest of the planet—that Russia had approved the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, named as Sputnik V in a clear attempt to re-edit a geopolitical career, not to conquer space but to end a pandemic that has killed more than 737,000 people.
A couple of weeks ago, Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the fund that is financing research for the vaccine, warned: “We are facing a moment like Sputnik,” in reference to the first satellite ever put into orbit, in 1957. “The Americans were surprised when they heard the beep of Sputnik and the same will happen with the vaccine: Russia will have it first.”
Despite the lunatic airs of the announcement, no one outside of Moscow has taken it seriously. Soon every relevant viewer has turned their heads to follow the true competitors in this race for the vaccine, who are currently in China, the United States and Europe.
If Putin was trying to strike a blow and put Russia on the map, he has not succeeded. The only thing the announcement points to is the desperation of the Russian leader.
The Gam-COVID-Vac vaccine
There are currently two main approaches on how to make a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that builds long-lasting immunity. The first is to use an attenuated form of the virus, using parts of its RNA, and the other is to use a vector – usually another virus – that has lost the ability to replicate but that can achieve the necessary mechanisms to emerge in our body to defend against COVID-19.
Of the first type (RNA) the most promising right now is the US Moderna company; of the second type (non-replicating viral vector) the Chinese CanSino Biologics or the vaccine from the University of Oxford and Astra Zeneca lead all bets. Like many other competitors in this race, both are based on adenovirus, mild pathogens such as those that cause the cold. The Russian vaccine follows exactly this instruction manual, so much so that several companies and research centers in Canada, the UK and the US last month accused the Kremlin of ‘hacking’ their servers in search of sensitive vaccine information.
Some prototypes, such as CanSino’s, are based on an adenovirus 5 (Ad5) and others on an adenovirus 26, such as the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson. The Russian bet has gone the middle way and uses both adenoviruses, 5 and 26. “Overall, the idea behind the vaccine doesn’t seem to be strange at all, just the development deadlines,” says Derek Lowe on his blog on ‘Science’ drug development expert, calling the Russian ad a “publicity stunt” that “inspires pity more than respect.”
The move is very similar to the one they played several weeks ago, when Moscow approved the first drug for the treatment of covid-19. The drug was called Avifavir and it was soon uncovered that it was just a generic version of favipiravir, a Japanese anti-flu that made a lot of noise in the first months of the pandemic – the Fujifilm company has the patent – but was soon discarded due to its low effectiveness and large side effects.
Now, despite Putin’s announcement that Russia is the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine, in the race for vaccines that are being developed, the Gam-COVID-Vac would be far from the leading positions currently held by CanSino. Moderna, Oxford or the German BioNTech, which is producing its vaccine together with Pfizer. All of these are already in phase III, that is, being administered to a large number of people to certify that the vaccine protects against the virus and does not generate any long-term side effects.
Many steps were skipped
Technically, Putin’s vaccine would be between phases I and II, since it would have been administered to only a small number of people. According to Moscow, about a hundred volunteers, including one of Putin’s two daughters; According to the registered clinical trial, and for which there is still no data, about 38 people in two batches. In fact, the clinical trial itself was expected to end on August 15, but even without the results having been published or appearing – like its rivals – in some scientific publication, Russia has jumped into the pool and registered it before even starting the phase III.
All we know is that, according to a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry, the 18 soldiers who tested the vaccine in that first round have not suffered any serious mishaps. “28 days after vaccination, the vital signs of the volunteers remained within normal levels,” he specified. The usual thing in this type of development is to wait between three and six months before moving on to phase III of the vaccine since some side effects can emerge several weeks after the injection.
It is also what the rest of the competitors are doing, for this reason – and despite the fact that many of these formulas have been previously tested for other uses – no pharmaceutical company has dared to guarantee an effective and safe vaccine on the market until the end of 2020 or early 2021.
Russia has simply chosen to skip all these steps.
“The probability that Russia has taken some shortcut to announce the vaccine earlier, coupled with the institutions that must test and approve the vaccine has little credibility and very little independence, forces us to take this kind of news very cautiously,” says Nicu Popescu, Europe’s programme director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Until a few months pass, the world won’t know if this Russian vaccine works or not.”
An unknown scientific center
Isabel Sola, a coronavirus researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology, is currently leading one of the Spanish projects for a possible vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. Like the rest of the academic world, Sola shares suspicions regarding the Russian vaccine. “The truth is that it is difficult to analyze this case because there is hardly any information and that is why everything has been received with great skepticism,” she explains. “There is nothing published and we do not even know what phase they are in, so it is impossible to trust and it is not how science works.”
Again, it is not so much the vaccine itself but everything that surrounds its development, which officially began on June 17, much later than its competitors. “What little we know, all according to its press releases is that it uses adenovirus 26 that carries protein S” or ‘spike’, one of the markers that alerts the body that the virus has entered the building. “This could be a squaring because it’s not the only vaccine in the process that follows this path, for example, the one Johnson & Johnson is developing is the same and its results have been quite promising,” Sola adds.
Another factor fuels suspicion about the vaccine and the accusations that Russia has been able to obtain some of the investigations illegally. In a world where collaboration prevails—not only between scientists but also with industry, with pharmaceutical companies allying with universities or companies to facilitate vaccine production—everything around the Gam-COVID-Vac comes from a single body: the Gamaleya Research Institute, named after Nikolay Gamaleya, a pioneering physician and microbiologist who managed to eradicate smallpox from Russia in the early twentieth century.
The latest international achievements of the center date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they made major contributions to vaccines against brucellosis or dysentery. But decades ago they got off the hook. “I honestly do not know the institute that is developing the Russian vaccine and, again, as there is hardly any information, it is difficult to go further,” Sola acknowledges. “But what I can say is that Russia is not a great power in the field of biomedicine and that I am not aware of any Russian group that stands out in the study of coronaviruses.”
Vladimir Putin has ordered the production of this vaccine begin with the aim of starting to mass vaccinate his citizens in October, starting with health workers: “I know that it works quite effectively, it forms a stable immunity,” said the Russian president. Actually, you don’t know. Nothing is yet known about the immunogenic effects of the vaccine, the duration of immunity and, most importantly, whether it is safe.
Look for the hit
It is known that Putin prefers to create earthquakes to suffer them, but this last year he has practically only received bad news. And the explanation for the speed with which they have announced the new vaccine could be behind these small catastrophes that, added together, put the long-term stability of the system at risk. ” The coronavirus has complicated Putin’s agenda. He thought that in 2020 he would launch a referendum to reinforce his legitimacy and relaunch Putinism as a model, but it has backfired,” says Nicolas de Pedro, a researcher at the Institute for Statecraft in London.
“The coronavirus has complicated Putin’s agenda. He thought that in 2020 he would relaunch Putinism as a model, but it has backfired”
The mismanagement of the pandemic at the national level – more than 15,000 deaths according to official data – has added to the economic stagnation and endemic corruption that pursued the country, which has long been uncodified in the future. But coronavirus is not everything: the recent protests in Khabarovsk, a region 8,000 kilometres from Moscow where thousands of people took to the streets to shout “down the tsar” after the arrest of Governor Sergei Furgal, have added another stone to the Kremlin’s backpack.
“As Putin does not have anything very exciting to offer to his citizens, reaching the vaccine first would be a global coup that would allow them to fight against the current narrative and say: we are a great country, we have managed to be the first,” the analyst concludes.
Of course, Russia is not the only country that wants to be the first to find a vaccine. There is no political system that rejects the popularity – and legitimacy, always important to Putinism – that causes being the first to reach the geopolitical goal in the race for the vaccine. However, unlike other countries, Moscow’s announcement of the vaccine has been greeted with caution, skepticism or, outright, contempt in major world capitals. “It is normal that there are doubts. It is the counterpart of using lies as a strategic weapon for years,” emphasizes De Pedro. “If Japan makes this announcement instead of Russia, we would all be sure that it works. But with Russia that doubt remains. Not even the Russians themselves will believe it completely.”