MOSCOW— Vladimir Putin has registered the world’s first state-approved vaccine against the coronavirus and probably expected congratulations—at least at home—for winning the global race for a vaccine, but even Russians aren’t so sure this is a good idea.
Epidemiologists, pharmacologists, and doctors in Russia have responded to the alleged breakthrough with skepticism, and they certainly aren’t lining up to be injected first.
Russian scientists plan to start the final stage of the trials on Monday, planning to begin the mass vaccination in October. Siberian scientists in the city of Novosibirsk are offering thousands of volunteers $1,997 for giving the vaccine a try, Znak news website reports. That is a lot of money for Novosibirsk, where the average monthly wage is $519.
Many fear it is dangerous to open the vaccine to the public weeks before the third-stage trials are completed. “It seems that five months for the creation of such an important drug is too short a time,” an article in popular newspaper Kommersant noted on Friday.
The whole enterprise evokes Soviet-era scientific experimentation which included many great advances but sometimes carried a deadly price tag, from botched vaccines and accidental leaks from weapons labs, to the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.
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To promote the world-first vaccine, Putin has boasted that one of his own daughters was among the first to volunteer. The authorities want thousands more Russians aged between 18 and 60 to follow suit.
The Daily Beast asked Russian doctors, scientists, business leaders, artists, housewives, and pensioners whether they would dare to take the untested, but potentially life-saving vaccine.
The president of the Russian Society of Evidence-based Medicine, Dr. Vasily Vlasov, said he had no plans to use the vaccine, nor would he recommend it to his friends or family. He sounded frustrated, explaining that there was no way to examine any of the findings from the first two stages of the trials. “They announced the vaccine was ready; but the creators still have not published the actual results of their research,” he said. “Everything is based on some unclear protocols and the longer they delay publishing, the more doubts people will have.”
The research looked a lot like a secret military operation from the start. The vaccine, created by a team of experts from the Russian Defense Ministry and the Gamaleya Institute, is called Sputnik V, in honor of the Cold War-era space-race winning satellite, which has also given its name to one of Russia’s leading state-operated propaganda news sites.
Leading epidemiologists and a trade group for medical experiments, the Russian Association of Clinical Trials, publicly urged the Kremlin to delay the vaccine’s registration, but they were ignored. Some scientists warned that it was possible Sputnik V could even make the disease more virulent in those who have been vaccinated.
The number of Sputnik volunteers remains unclear. Some sources suggest that just 76 people took part in trials, others said hundreds had been given the vaccine—some of them unofficially—before formal registration. Russian epidemiologists have been forced to rely on rumors: “Since the second phase was conducted by the Defense Ministry, everything’s kept as a big secret,” said Mikhail Favorov, an epidemiologist, who is worried about potential side effects. “Once the vaccine’s been administered, there is nothing to be done—that’s what is awful.”
“This vaccine is made of politics,” said Alexander Nevzorov, a well-known radio observer. “This is a pharmacological record. Thirty eight people tried it, while the entire world says that 5,000 is not enough—this is both a record and a record of absolute impudence [arrogance?].”
Normal life has been returning to Russia after lockdown: local tourism is booming and passengers are crowding onto planes, many without masks on. Moscow’s restaurants, gyms and galleries are once again buzzing with visitors, though every day, the capital reports between 600 and 700 new cases. There is no doubt that an effective vaccine is needed here, just as it is in the rest of the world.
To try to attract Russians to take the Sputnik V vaccination, the government invited the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, Aleksey Venediktov, to try the vaccine. In a broadcast, he said he had declined. So did Venediktov’s deputy, Olga Bychkova: “I don’t want to become a guinea pig for these medical experiments,” she told The Daily Beast.
The Kremlin has high hopes for Sputnik V—imagining that it could capture as much as a quarter of the world’s demand for a coronavirus vaccine, which would make $75 billion, according to the business newspaper Vedomosti.
Denis Logunov, one of the Russian vaccine’s creators, explained that the accelerated registration was needed “so that people from the risk group could participate in the study.” That explanation brought no comfort to people with family members in at-risk groups. “My son, a scientist researching COVID, will not let me get vaccinated with Sputnik V, since the reaction could poison me,” said Olga Frolova, a 67-year old pensioner.
Many feel Russia should at least wait until some of the early volunteers have been exposed to the coronavirus and the effectiveness of the vaccine is properly tested. One of Lukoil’s top managers, Vasily Zubakin, had a simple explanation for his decision to wait: “Being in the at-risk group at 61, I am simply afraid,” he said.
There is a deep-rooted public respect for doctors and scientists in Russia. Research conducted by the Higher School of Economics a few years ago asked what occupations people personally respected, and 41 percent named doctors as the most respected professionals. Yet for generations, authorities made doctors cover up a record of bad side effects to vaccines in the Soviet Union. “For decades, the Soviet government kept post-vaccine medical complications a secret. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Russian Health Ministry drew up compensation laws,” Vlasov told The Daily Beast. “I remember children suffering from cysts, and infected bones after Soviet vaccination against TB. We still have many questions about coronavirus.”
Among the Moscow elite, pop stars, film directors, radio and TV presenters all fear the impact of the coronavirus on their work. Theaters, which are at the heart of Russia’s cultural life, are about to open their doors for the new season.
Keeping the virus at bay is crucial for thousands in the entertainment industry, but many remain skeptical. “For now both me and all my friends feel doubtful about the creation of this vaccine, the fuss around it,” popular comedian and choreographer, Yekaterina Varnava, told The Daily Beast. “At least eight months of trials should pass before it truly becomes real, legit; it’s unclear how they suddenly made it work.”
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