Western media, however, quickly rained on Russia’s parade by pointing out that the vaccine’s creator, Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute, hadn’t been transparent about its testing process. The vaccine hadn’t even completed Phase III trials, and Gamaleya has never made public its Phase I and II testing.
At home in Russia, the reaction has been equally mixed. The development of the vaccine — named Sputnik V, an allusion to the Soviet Union’s glory days during the space race — is a major PR victory for Moscow. Local media sites were quick to celebrate with headlines like “Russian vaccine and Putin’s daughter win over Global Media.”
Russian friends in Moscow interpreted the news as a sign that the country could still compete scientifically with the West after years of underfunding for the sciences and brain-drain. “The Western media writes badly about Russia because it makes them feel good,” complained Slava Fillipov, a photographer friend. “But we’re a lot more developed and smart than they think.”
Yet, even as many common Russians professed pride in the achievements of their scientists, the medical community is a lot more skeptical. A recent poll shows that 1 in 2 doctors have reservations about the inoculation, with two-thirds concerned about insufficient data proving its effectiveness, and others worried that it was developed “too fast.”
Even Russian friends who hailed the achievement still admitted that they’d rather wait until trials were complete — and the vaccine was also approved by the international community — before playing Russian roulette with their health. Most admit privately that they’re relieved that the vaccine won’t be obligatory for now.
Most outsiders — and even a slight majority in Russia — see the rushed approval of the vaccine by the Kremlin as a political ploy — a way to score an easy victory over the West in the global race to develop a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. The Kremlin’s catchy moniker also betrays its true purpose as a weapon in Russia’s game of one-upmanship with the West.
Svetlana Zavidova, the executive director of the Association of Clinical Trials Organizations (ACTO) in Russia, warned against the untested vaccine in an interview with Bloomberg. “The rules for conducting clinical trials are written in blood. They can’t be violated,” Zavidova said. “This is a Pandora’s Box, and we don’t know what will happen to people injected with an unproven vaccine.”
The internet is already full of memes about Russia’s suspect vaccine, including a widely shared NSFW photo of a shirtless Putin with large breasts under the caption: “Putin says Covid-19 vaccine has no side effects.”
Still, not everyone in Russia is so down on Sputnik V. “I am confident enough in Russia’s Gamaleya vaccine that I received an injection of it … and developed a strong immunity in twenty days,” exulted Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s $50 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund that bankrolled the development of the virus, in a crowing op-ed for Newsweek.
In addition to Putin’s daughter (the Russian president didn’t specify which one), there are reports that many Russian oligarchs have also taken the vaccine in recent weeks. And with Russia set to vaccinate teachers and others at risk at the end of the month, some Russians are eagerly awaiting their first shot, according to breathless media reports.
Kremlin media has also been quick to highlight that the development of the vaccine proves that Russia can still pull its weight in science and technology.
They do have a point: Sputnik V is a sophisticated shot of biotechnology. It uses common cold adenovirus injected with genes from the spike of the coronavirus to cause an immune reaction in the human body. And, unlike Western vaccines under development, it uses a booster shot of a different cold virus 21 days later to increase its efficacy.
While similar to the Oxford University vaccine in development with AstraZeneca, the Russians’ use of human adenovirus — as opposed to monkey in the former case — is unique. And the Gamaleya Institute has also successfully patented vaccines for Ebola, MERs and other viral diseases in the past.
Even some Western experts agree.
“From what I’ve seen out there, they are probably the most promising platform,” says Hildegund Ertl, who studies adenoviral vector vaccines at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia.
Domestically, Putin’s gambit of treating the development of a corona vaccine as a modern-day space race and cutting corners to beat the rest to the finish line has paid dividends for now. Russians are understandably proud, and the president’s popularity has received a boost after the discontent of the long corona winter.
While the rest of the world remains wary and fearful, with the need for constant social distancing cramping the desire for a return to normalcy, Russia feels like it’s already on the cusp of a post-corona future. Schools and universities are set to open in September, museums and theaters are open, and the fear and paranoia about catching coronavirus have receded.
“Who cares about catching corona when we have a vaccine,” quipped a taxi driver this week.
Putin has certainly scored a temporary victory. But his penchant for bending the rules to emerge ahead — as Russia did during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi with its illegal doping of athletes — could still come back later to haunt him.
If it later emerges that the Sputnik V vaccine has side effects that endanger the health of Russians, and others brave enough to try the rushed cure, his reputation might never recover. The West will then be proved right in its distrust of the Russian vaccine.
Putin may yet discover that like in the classic fable of the turtle and the hare, it takes more than speed to win the race.