Western electronic media have reacted with skepticism and sharp criticism to President Putin’s announcement yesterday that Russia’s first Covid-19 vaccine has been officially registered and will soon enter industrial production.
Many of the skeptics we see on the air are more generally Russia-bashers and detractors. They often know little about the country and have no idea about Russia’s scientific community and its achievements over the past decade precisely in the area of immunology and combatting infectious diseases.
This thumbs down reaction may be characterized as a case of “sour grapes” – meaning a combination of envy and embarrassment that Russia has proven itself far bolder than the global, especially U.S. and European competitors in addressing directly the threat of the virus to human health and to the economy while wasting no time on protocol niceties that will give little practical benefit other than to allow officials to cover their asses should the final results of the immunization program be less than perfect.
With respect to television and cable coverage, the judgment also may be the consequence of lack of time to get into the complexities of the given case. I make this argument with a sideways glance at today’s feature article in The Financial Times, a publication which surely is editorially not soft on the Russians but has given a far more nuanced account of the Russian registration of their Sputnik-V vaccine and planned start with vaccination of medical workers in the coming weeks prior to widespread immunization of the civilian population later in the year.
“Russia to start mass use of its Covid-19 vaccine” by Moscow-based journalist Henry Foy and others sets out nearly all the relevant facts and opinions in the case, both pro and contra, without taking sides. (https://www.ft.com/content/219b973f-c50a-4071-994f-cc4592d43e1b?segmentId=6bf9295a-189d-71c6-18fb-d469f27d3523 )
This seeming balance may result from the fact that the FT reporters are themselves unable to agree on who is right, the Russians or their Western critics.
The FT article opens with the remark on “Moscow’s desire to rush the vaccine through testing and trial procedures at breakneck speed in an attempt to beat western pharmaceutical companies.” Without a doubt there is an element of this in the Russian decision to proceed with registration and start civilian immunizations at once. Naming the vaccine after the 1957 Sputnik, which catapulted the USSR in the minds of the global public from a primitive, brutal society to scientific and engineering powerhouse, clearly points in the direction of status seeking by winning the Covid-19 race hands down. However, the judicious selection of front line medical workers and teachers as the first to undergo immunization, months before the general public, shows that the Russian policy-makers are also motivated by humanitarian concern to cut infections, cut deaths and restore normality to our lives as soon as possible. Period.
The article mentions that 500 million doses of the vaccine will be produced abroad and that 20 countries have signed up to receive the vaccine, including the Philippines, where it will be shipped free of charge – all of this should indicate that Russia is going beyond the glory to do good in the world on behalf of medicine. These 500 million doses are half of the planned production run, the other 500 million to be produced in Russia, it appears. Meanwhile, the fact that Russia has signed with AstraZeneca to procure doses of its vaccine when it is released is another demonstration that Russia is not just a spoiler but a good faith participant in the medical quest to tame the virus.
There are two faces of any vaccine which undergo testing through a series of trials. They are safety and efficacy. Given that none of the vaccines now being developed in the West and in Russia contain actual corona virus, but all have been synthesized, the question of safety is surely the lesser concern all around. The Russian vaccine, like the one being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca uses the harmless human adenovirus to carry genetic material from Covid-19 and build immunity. Unlike several vaccines in preparation in the USA, in particular, by Moderna, there is nothing revolutionary about the technology such as might raise questions about its safety.
As for efficacy, meaning the effective production of antibodies in those immunized and the time such antibodies will protect, that is something which will indeed require six, eight or more months to prove. Moreover, what no one is talking about at the moment, efficacy is a very relative concept. The seasonal flu vaccine, which we in the older generation all take without a moment’s hesitation every year, has, depending on the latest strain of influenza, an efficacy rate perhaps no greater than 50%. But no one would think for a moment of not taking the vaccine because protection is not assured.
In the midst of this pandemic, time is of the essence.
So the real question today is do you have the confidence and boldness to proceed with immunization and do what you can to curb the virus’s propagation while it is presenting a deadly threat to our societies, do you proceed with the best you have and administer it first to those in greatest need, namely front line medical workers and teachers, as Russia is today planning to do and then, with some delay offer the vaccine to the general population.
I think the Russian decision deserves applause rather than the jeers we see in so much of the Western press today.
At the same time, it must be stressed that whatever vaccine is invented, effective treatments of those infected with Covid-19 is a matter of primary interest to us all – to save lives and to prepare the way for an eventual return to normal living. In this regard, it is very regrettable that here in Europe no EU member country has sought to procure quantities of the proven Russian medicines for treating early Covid-19 infections Avifavir or the drug they have brought to market for late stages of the disease which are life threatening. Given that the US drug similar to Avifavir in its effect, Remdesevir, is in short supply, with production capacity of the manufacturer Gilead, nearly completely booked by the US government, Europe is currently left naked. Both the US and Russian drugs are in fact repurposed existing antivirals. It is high time to turn to Moscow and find a solution there.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]