On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country had become the first to register a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. “I know that it works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks,” Putin said on state-run television, according to Reuters. His daughter has even received it, he added.
The vaccine is called “Sputnik V,” a sign Russia very much sees this as a tool of propaganda. “In 1957 the successful launch of the first space satellite by the Soviet Union reinvigorated space research around the world,” the website explains. “The new Russian COVID-19 vaccine is therefore called Sputnik V.”
But scientists and health experts around the world are deeply skeptical of Putin’s claim of efficacy, and worry that a premature announcement of success could cause harm. Unlike other leading efforts to develop a vaccine in countries including the United Kingdom, China, and the United States, Russia bypassed large-scale trials, or phase three trials, where the vaccine is administered to thousands of people. Those trials are critically important to find out how effective the vaccine is, and whether participants experience any less common side effects undetected in the first rounds.
The Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow developed the vaccine but hasn’t shared many of its findings. According to Jon Cohen at Science Magazine, the vaccine has only been tested in 76 people.
Russia has been telegraphing the vaccine announcement, with Putin framing it as a major achievement at home and abroad. It’s the latest example of “vaccine nationalism,” where discovery and distribution becomes a competition, and countries try to advance their own interests before those of the global community. But the risks of pushing an untested and unvetted vaccine are grave, and could have stunning consequences for public health and trust in the safety of vaccines more broadly.
Without large-scale testing,there is the risk that the vaccine just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well enough, or doesn’t last very long. This could give recipients, and governments, a false sense of security, leading to the abandonment of public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing. And that means the coronavirus could roar back.
It’s also not clear if Russia’s vaccine will be affordable, or what access will look like — will it be equitably distributed, or widely available? As the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, equitable and affordable access worldwide will be critical to halting outbreaks.