In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin ballyhooed the world’s very first coronavirus vaccine. The serum had yet to run through stage 3 trials but Putin assured the world it was safe and effective.
So where is it? The number of infections in Russia is spiking, the dead are piling up, and lockdowns that had already been in place have been extended. On Wednesday, the Russian government imposed a nationwide mask mandate.
You would think that if the vaccine was safe and effective, Russia would have been dosing thousands of front-line health workers and other essential employees. Instead, vaccine distribution appears to be stuck in neutral while the secretive institute where the vaccine was developed remains tight-lipped about its progress.
International virology experts cast doubt on Russia’s claims of proven safety. “People who were immunized with this vaccine won’t know whether they will be protected or develop a severe disease until they encounter the virus,” Konstantin Chumakov, a top virologist with the Global Virus Network, told CNN in an interview.
“And to do this, you need to immunize a whole lot of people and just wait until they will be infected and see whether they will have a lower incidence or they will have more severe disease. There is just nothing that can replace clinical trials.”
Reports say that only 16,000 Russians have participated in the trials so far with only 6,000 getting their second inoculation. In the U.S., Moderna’s vaccine has dosed almost 30,000 people with more than 25,000 getting their second inoculation. BioNTech-Pfizer’s vaccine is testing 44,000 patients while more than 35,000 have received their second dose. Both companies will have to study the results for a couple of months before submitting applications for approval. It will be well into next year before any kind of effective vaccine is available for distribution.
The Russians tried a shortcut. They created a vaccine based on two proven serums; Ebola and MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The Russian vaccine was barely tested in Guinea only after the Ebola outbreak there had subsided.
So the Russian vaccine is a sham? Not entirely, say experts.
“This particular institute, they have developed several prototype vaccines, I wouldn’t call them vaccines,” Chumakov said. “I don’t think that this institute has developed a vaccine in the last, you know, 30 years. They are very good in developing prototypes … but I don’t believe they have any experience in bringing products to the market.”
Another issue for the Russians is how many doses they can manufacture. There have been conflicting reports about the Russians’ capability to manufacture enough doses for their entire population of 146 million in a year — a number the Ministry of Trade says they will be able to hit.
But reality bites.
[Alexander] Gintsburg [head of the Gamaleya Institute] told CNN Russia could produce around 5 million a month by December, which he said would allow getting enough doses to vaccinate 70% of the Russian population in about a year.
But unless Russia ramps up the production significantly from 5 million doses a month, the country will be only able [to] produce around 60 million doses in this time frame, meaning it would be able to effectively vaccinate about 30 million people with both doses — out of more than 146 million Russians.
Putin’s bragging has already been forgotten. But you can bet that Russian history books will make the claim that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was the first nation in the world to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Even though they’re not even close.