Russia's coronavirus vaccine boast may lead to 'dangerous' Cold War-style race

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

Claiming to be first in a global effort to develop a vaccine against coronavirus is the kind of thing you'd expect from a strong-man like Vladimir Putin. But experts worry a Cold-war style vaccine race could be dangerous.

If it's accurate, all today's announcement tells us is Russia has made similar progress as some other countries developing a Covid-19 vaccine. They have a candidate that uses two human adenoviruses (typically these cause the common cold) engineered to initiate an immune response to Covid-19. We learned today that their candidate vaccine has, according to Mr Putin, "proven efficient and forms a stable immunity," and "has passed all the necessary tests".

Two other Covid vaccines based on an adenovirus have also passed this milestone. The vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and Astra Zeneca in the UK has already entered large-scale trials in Brazil to test its effectiveness. A Chinese vaccine based on one of the same adenoviruses as the Russian vaccine is being given the Chinese military.

Science Editor Tom Clarke discusses Russia's new coronavirus vaccine

All we know about Russia's vaccine so far is based on the registrations made by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, which developed it. That indicates the vaccine has been through Phase 1 and 2 trials which tests the safety of new vaccines in small numbers of people. But no data has been released so far. So why so much interest in Mr Putin's claims?

Well that's because he says the vaccine has gained "approval" in Russia and that hundreds of millions of doses will be manufactured and sold abroad.

Mr Putin suggests that will happen as the crucial Phase 3 trials to test effectiveness and wider safety of the vaccine will happen "starting immediately", but typically a vaccine would never be approved until such studies have been done.

As a result, the announcement has been met with some angry response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

"This is a reckless and foolish decision," says Prof Francois Balloux at University College London. "Mass vaccination with an improperly tested vaccine is unethical."

Safety data on the other adenovirus vaccines suggests it's likely the Russian vaccine may well be safe and elicits an immune response in the limited number of people tested, but that's a long way from knowing whether it's safe and effective in a wide range of age groups and genetic backgrounds.

“The bar is necessarily set very high for criteria that must be satisfied for approval after Phase 3 clinical trials. The collateral damage from the release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective would exacerbate our current problems insurmountably," said Prof Danny Altman at Imperial College in London.

If the name for the new vaccine, "Sputnik V" was chosen to invoke a Cold-war era type response, it seems to be working.

Today, US news channels reported President Trump was being briefed on vaccine progress in the US and will be making an announcement tonight.

Vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine Credit: Sean Elias/PA

Today, the team from Oxford University, considered by many to be the leading candidate of the 100-or-so Covid-19 vaccines being researched worldwide said ideally several vaccine candidates would need to be successful to address the global pandemic.

"This is not a competition between vaccine candidates but one against the SARS-CoV-2 virus," they said in a statement.

Given the damage already done to public health by the "anti-vaxxer" movement, experts are concerned a politically motivated scramble to have the "first" vaccine could do more harm than good.

"Any problem with the Russian vaccination campaign would be disastrous both through its negative effects on health, but also because it would further set back the acceptance of vaccines in the population.” says Prof Balloux.