A rush to win the “vaccine race”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia has approved the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine should have evoked sighs of relief worldwide. With over 20 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 750,000 deaths so far worldwide, the availability of a vaccine should have triggered celebrations across the world. That it has not speaks volumes of the deeply flawed nature of the trial procedures that the vaccine has been subjected to before the Russian announcement.
Putin has also announced regulatory approval of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moscow's Gamaleya Institute. He plans to start mass vaccinations in October. Naming the vaccine Sputnik V, Putin asserted that Russia had won the vaccine race. Putin’s action is reckless and dangerous, gambling with the health and safety of the Russian people. What is important is not to be first with a COVID-19 vaccine but to be the best, which means it must be proven safe and effective. A vaccine can be considered safe and effective only if it is proven in Phase 3 placebo-controlled clinical trials conducted on a large population. Until successful completion of Phase 3 trials, a vaccine must still be considered investigational.
Several pharma companies and countries are racing to develop vaccines to stall SARS-CoV-2.  Currently, there are eight vaccines in Phase 3 trials, but Sputnik V is not among them. Also, the Gamaleya Institute has not released safety or immunity data from its early phase clinical studies. The lack of transparency makes it impossible to independently verify the hyped claims. If the vaccine does prove to be effective, it would be a major and exciting breakthrough in the world’s fight against COVID-19. Since the pandemic outbreak, researchers around the world have been working to develop a vaccine against it. Over 165 vaccines are under development, some 30 of them in human trials.
Apparently, the Russian scientists who developed the vaccine as well as Putin’s own daughter have been vaccinated with Sputnik-V and are doing well. Putin has not provided solid data backing his claim that the vaccine works. It is alarming that an untested vaccine is being promoted by the head of a state. Vaccine hesitancy has been a major challenge globally, resulting in a resurgence of measles and other childhood diseases. A rush to win the “vaccine race” using terms like “Sputnik” or President Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed,” can cause grave public concern. If Sputnik-V proves effective, it would be a huge victory for Russian scientific achievement. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s stature has declined in almost every field; a successful vaccine would give its global image a boost.  

- Prabhakar Purandare

Other Editorials