Russia Just Approved a Vaccine for COVID-19
I opened my phone today to a shocking piece of news: Russia has supposedly approved a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, told the press today that the country had developed a vaccine for COVID-19. The vaccine was reportedly created by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow. Although the vaccine has not yet been widely distributed to the public, it will soon be on its way to Phase 3 trials and given to thousands of people. According to Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (the organization that is providing all of the funding for the development of the vaccine), these Phase 3 trials are scheduled to start in Russia this Wednesday.
So how should we feel about this news?
People across the world are already developing curiosity about the vaccine. According to Russian officials, at least 20 countries (and a handful of US companies) are interested in the vaccine, says CNN. After COVID-19’s drastic impact on the global economy and its high infection rate and death toll, it’s understandable that people would be eager to get their hands on a vaccine. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we just want this whole ordeal to be done as soon as possible so we can return to our lives and save each other from further damage and danger. But despite all of that, Russia’s new vaccine may not be the answer. In fact, it’s raised a lot of safety concerns.
According to a law that Russia passed in April, new vaccines no longer need to go through Phase 3 trials (the widespread administration of the vaccine to citizens) before being approved for use. That’s one of the reasons that Russia was able to accelerate the development of its first coronavirus vaccine. The country approved it without conducting any Phase 3 trials or assessing the efficacy or safety of it on volunteers. This already raises a red flag for many scientists, who cite that trials like these are needed in order to determine the true benefits of such a vaccine and credibly prove whether or not it is safe.
And Russia still hasn’t released any sort of data or research about the testing they’ve done so far on the vaccine, says CNN. Truthfully, there is very little information out there about whether the vaccine is actually even effective — or safe — for people. That’s been a big concern for scientists and medical professionals across the world, ever since the news came out about the new vaccine. There’s a huge lack of clarity about exactly how this vaccine was able to be developed and how the first phases of trials were conducted, or what information was found in the process. To some, it may appear comforting that there hasn’t been any cited dangers of the vaccine, but yet there aren’t any cited benefits of the vaccine, either, or a statement about its general effectiveness. Logically and medically, this amount of ambiguity surrounding such a critical issue is concerning.
Of course, Russia isn’t the only country to begin the developments of a vaccine. In fact, the World Health Organization states that there are 25 other vaccines across the globe that are “in the clinical evaluation stage of development,” and 139 others that are “in the preclinical evaluation stage of development.” Presumably, this includes the vaccines trying to be developed in the US in an effort to ease the impact of the coronavirus as well.
Interestingly, the Russian coronavirus vaccine has been named “Sputnik-V” — a tactful nod to the creation and launch of the world’s first satellite, patented by the Soviet Union in 1957. At the time, it was a point of pride for modern-day Russia. And over time, Russia has continued to be persistent in having the role of a world superpower and achieving the impossible. The process of developing a vaccine is likely a result of that as well. In fact, the fast-paced nature of the situation is believed to be fueled by pressures from the Russian government (and specifically, the Russian president). The Russian government has a history of being competitive with global issues, and the coronavirus gave them yet another opportunity to make notable progress and publicize it before other countries did.
To me, the context of this situation seems to give evidence that the vaccine has not been thoroughly studied, and raises eyebrows about whether or not it can be trusted. I can say with confidence that I am a believer in vaccines, and I can understand why the public is excited about the idea of having a vaccine for this. However, our desperation to achieve this goal should not affect our process towards reaching it. Simply disregarding Phase 3 trials, neglecting to document the potential dangers and side effects of the vaccine, and excluding even the bare statistics (like the effectiveness of the vaccine), doesn’t strike me as a very ethical or healthy way to go about this. There’s a reason that vaccines take time, and fast-tracking them, while appealing, can have severe repercussions. The haste to defeat COVID-19 could backfire in a huge way. If the vaccine is distributed to people while it’s still in an experimental stage, there’s no telling what the consequences could be. Hypothetically, it could be endangering millions of people without knowledge of how it will impact them.
After all, April was only a few months ago — and that’s when Russia got rid of the requirement to conduct Phase 3 trials for vaccines. Back then, the COVID-19 crisis was still fairly new and was continuing to spiral out of control, which propelled the need for preventative medicine like a vaccine. But there’s barely been time to study it. Russia most likely got rid of this requirement in their desperation to patent a solution for the coronavirus before anyone else could. And yes, the desperation is understandable. But the situation becomes increasingly concerning.
I can’t help but wonder about the role of governmental competition in this decision. Just speaking from the perspective of the US, we’ve had a history of having feuds with the Russian government and racing them to specific milestones, like walking on the moon or *gasp* maybe even this vaccine. Was it the need for a vaccine that fueled this decision, or the attempt to achieve it to prove Russia’s power and competency above the rest of the world? And political beliefs aside, even if we could pretend that competition had no role in this process, is it really a good idea to be moving forward so fast with something like this when so little is known about it?
I am not a scientist. I am not a medical professional. In fact, I have no background whatsoever in either of the fields. But I can say that it’s important to educate ourselves in a situation like this. It’s important to follow the necessary steps towards this vaccine, even if it takes longer than we’d like. I say that from the perspective of a US citizen who wants to know the safety of the vaccine before the world receives it. But I also say that from the perspective of a US citizen who believes that we all need to join together to combat the COVID-19 crisis — and rivaling governments, fast-tracked scientific discoveries, and unknown information are actually counterintuitive to reaching that level of unity and safety.
I want this crisis to end as soon as it possibly can. I want us to work together to confront the inequities that have been exposed because of it. I want us to protect each other, to be safe, to be healthy. I want to prevent further damage. We all deserve to live happy, healthy, equitable lives. This has turned many of our lives upside-down in ways we never imagined were possible. We all possess a collective desire to repair the damage that this virus has caused and to stop it from any further destruction.
So that’s why I advocate for us to educate ourselves. That’s why I advocate that we take the necessary time to study this vaccine and understand it before we administer it to millions of people. That’s why I advocate that we work together — rather than compete apart.
And the idea of doing anything to the contrary is adding fuel to the fire — producing more uncertainty. We deserve to have the information to feel secure.
After all, most of us are here with the same intentions at heart — to beat COVID-19, and to do so in the pursuit of safety and health for everyone.