(Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russia announced Tuesday that it was the first nation in the world to approve a vaccine against Covid-19. President Putin said the vaccine – dubbed ‘Sputnik V’ – was ‘effective and safe’ and that his own daughter had received it with no side effects. It is said to be his eldest daughter Maria Vorontsova, an endocrinologist, who was personally involved in the development of the vaccine. According to the Russian president, the mass vaccination of the population can already start in October. The rest of the world seems less enthusiastic. Many questions therefore remain unanswered.
The vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, but never made it to Phase III tests. These are crucial because tens of thousands of people are then included in the tests to find out whether the medicine provides immunity without showing side effects.
In contrast, ‘Sputnik V’ was tested on exactly 76 people. Among them the scientists who developed the vaccine and now seem very satisfied with their work. The vaccine should be administered in two doses and would ensure immunity for 2 years.
The most rapidly developed vaccine ever is that against mumps. Development took four years. ‘Sputnik V’ arrived in less than 5 months.
The American pharmaceutical company Moderna recently announced that it has started Phase III tests with 30,000 people. What follows from such a massive test will instill more confidence in people than a test on 76 people. So the question is what Putin can gain by taking a phenomenal ‘shortcut’. And what does he have to lose?
What are the advantages?
A huge PR coup: If the vaccine is indeed safe and effective, Russia will score a huge PR coup here. Putin made no promises. It is Donald Trump who has been calling for months that there will be a vaccine soon. It is certainly no coincidence that the vaccine was named ‘Sputnik V’. 1957 – more than 63 years ago – was the last time the Russians could beat the US by being the first to send a satellite into space.
A huge boost for the Russian economy: Russians can then be the first to get back to work 100%. If other countries also start ordering ‘Sputnik V’ en masse, Russia will also have a great influence on what happens in the rest of the world. According to Moscow, 20 countries have already signed up for the vaccine. Among them Brazil, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kazakhstan. And when was the last time you saw ‘Made in Russia’ on a product?
An enormous amount of cash enters the country: 1 billion doses have already been ordered. The cash that this generates in Russia will in any case be in the hands of people living in the inner circle of Putin, further expanding his power.
A surge in Vladimir Putin’s popularity: Due to the clumsy way his country handled Covid-19, Putin’s popularity had fallen to an all-time low in recent months.
What are the drawbacks?
If the vaccine does not work or proves to be ineffective, the consequences will be incalculable. People who felt safe will not be, which will increase the number of confirmed cases again. Others may face side effects. The economy is momentarily cranked up, after which it slows down again. This also applies to other countries that trusted in ‘Sputnik V’ and had their citizens vaccinated.
The four aforementioned advantages would then be transformed into colossal disadvantages, resulting in numerous lawsuits and a further hypothesis of Russia’s already often questionable status in the West.
A flawed vaccine would also be grist to the mill of the global anti-vaccination movement, which continues to expand. Earlier this week, it was announced that less than half of Americans registered as Republican (47%) would be willing to “get a free vaccine against Covid-19.” This is 19% among Democrats. In other words, not vaccines, but vaccinations do the job. If the Russian vaccine is not effective, the vaccination movement will take a giant step backwards. The introduction of a working vaccine at a later date will then be viewed with great suspicion.
Finally, a working vaccine would be developed in less than six months mean the end of the usual rules in the medical world, where transparency and respect for strict protocol has reigned for more than a hundred years. This would especially benefit populist politicians who do not care about international cooperation and institutions such as the World Health Organization WHO.
So we all have to hope that ‘Sputnik V’ is the miracle vaccine promised
Although other vaccines have generated promising results in test phases I and II, it is generally expected that none of them will confer immunity. However, they will alleviate the symptoms of Covid-19, with or without side effects.
The Russian ‘success’ will now undoubtedly encourage the other laboratories to achieve results even faster, with all the consequences that entails.
If the first Covid vaccines fail, public confidence in the science will be further eroded and the pandemic with all its hateful consequences will only last longer. Even if a safe and effective vaccine comes after that, that mistrust will persist.
So we all have to hope that ‘Sputnik V’ is the miracle vaccine promised.