Russia becomes the first country in the world to officially approve a COVID-19 vaccine, significantly named ‘Sputnik V’; Sputnik 1 was the first ever orbital satellite launched in 1957 which set off a space war between the superpowers, the USA prominently. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday, the 11th of August, 2020 that Russian scientists had achieved a breakthrough in the global COVID-19 vaccine race with Sputnik V which was experimented tested safely on volunteers including the President’s daughter, over a period of two months starting June. He further said that the virus has ‘sustainable immunity’ and it is registered and approved for civilian use. Sputnik V is developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute in collaboration with the country’s defence ministry. Thousands of doses are likely to be administered first on the communities at risk, mostly the health workers and teachers, from this month itself, coming ahead of the most promising vaccine candidates: Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer. The industrial production is set to kickstart either from September, 2020 or from January, 2021 which is so far not clear, as per media reports and interviews. In any case, millions of doses are to be produced every month from early next year.
The announcement, as expected, set off a chain of reactions around the world, ranging from ‘alarming’ to ‘shocking’. Of course, there are at least two valid reasons for this skepticism among the top scientists and health experts of the world: first, its incredible fast-tracking, getting it done just nine months into the Corona crisis; second, the lack of public data that makes the safety and efficacy aspects of Sputnik V very doubtful which, if used widely at this stage, could create health complications in vaccinated people. The scientists say that the announcement is based only on the results of Phase-1 human clinical trials, and the results of Phase-2 and Phase-3, if at all completed, are yet to be published. They add emphatically that without the Phase-3 trials where the vaccine is administered to tens of thousands of volunteers no vaccine could be declared as safe and effective, and that Sputnik V has been tested only on 76 volunteers so far as per their published data.
The Russian government officials defend Sputnik V success with the contention that this was not entirely a new vaccine, because it is primarily based on the vaccine developed earlier for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) disease that was caused by another Coronavirus. They maintain that there had been experimentation and testing for over two months, Phase-2 has also been completed in July and Phase-3 near completion at the moment. Regarding the ‘lack of transparency’ charge they say that the world must acknowledge Russia’s traditional policy of ‘secrecy’ which was also clearly visible during Sputnik 1 launch. Another reference point given here is that of China’s equally secretive ways, where the Wuhan Vaccine was supposedly developed and tried in military personnel without publishing any public data.
Other critiques allege that the vaccine race has been assuming the color of ‘vaccine nationalism’ and even a ‘cold-war namesake’ with countries trying to rush through the process as a matter of national pride and a victory in the global race beating one’s super rivals. However, this allegation cannot be just Russia-specific or China-specific, this, unfortunately, has been emerging as an international phenomenon based on strategic defence and diplomatic relations and the principles of alignment or non-alignment. Even a large part of the mainstream international media does reflect this conflict: Russia, on one two occasions earlier, had in fact reported on getting close to producing a vaccine, but the news was not widely carried for obvious reasons, while the development of vaccines in the US or in the West was given exhaustive publicity. US President Donald Trump had admitted recently that he had actually been rushing through the process in view of the international crisis, the other strategic reasons being hidden apparently. For the same reasons, most of the experts from the US or the West are least likely to acknowledge the Russian achievement of a ‘ready’ vaccine and would be more prone to ‘raising an alarm’.
The Russian government claimed that around 20 countries had expressed interest in producing Sputnik V including Brazil, India and others. Accordingly, over a billion doses are to be manufactured from the start of 2021. Meanwhile, the government of India has appointed a National Experts Group on Vaccine Administration to examine the safety aspects of Sputnik V before adopting or approving it. The World Health Organization (WHO), at loggerheads with President Trump at the present moment, has also responded to Russia’s registering of the first-ever COVID-19 vaccine and asked for a rigorous review of safety data to be submitted if the country wants a WHO approval. The WHO has also said that it has been in constant touch with Russian health authorities and brainstorming discussions are going on.
Whatever be the rivalry or nationalistic pride or vaccine cold-war between countries or superpowers of the world the international community, to re-emphasize again, must unite and fully cooperate in discovering the most-wanted and eagerly awaited COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. Every vaccine candidate must be assessed on pure merit only, in respect to its safety data and immunity parameters, and definitely not on the basis of which country of what strategic importance or of what governance policy or of what ideology has produced it or has been developing it. Hopefully, considering the various stages of development of various vaccines, primarily, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer, Sputnik V and Wuhan, humankind is very likely to be blessed with a vaccine by end of 2020 or more realistically, in the early part of 2021. Significantly, the Russian vaccine also does conform to this deadline only, one likes it or not.