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Russia’s race for COVID-19 vaccine raises concerns at home and abroad

Medical workers draw blood from participants coronavirus vaccine trial
Medical workers prepare to draw blood from participants in a coronavirus vaccine trial at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow.
(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Russia boasts that it’s about to become the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, with mass vaccinations planned as early as October using shots that have yet to complete clinical trials — a headlong rush that scientists worldwide warn could backfire.

Moscow sees a propaganda victory in winning the vaccine race, similar to the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. But the experimental COVID-19 shots began testing in humans with a few dozen people less than two months ago, and there’s no published scientific evidence yet backing Russia’s late entry in the global vaccine race, much less explaining why it should be considered a front-runner.

“I’m worried that Russia is cutting corners so that the vaccine that will come out may be not just ineffective but also unsafe,” said Lawrence Gostin, an expert in global public-health law at Georgetown University. “It doesn’t work that way. ... Trials come first. That’s really important.”

According to Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled the effort, a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya research institute in Moscow may be approved in days, before scientists complete a Phase 3 study. That final-stage study, usually involving tens of thousands of people, is the only way to prove if an experimental vaccine is safe and really works.

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Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said members of “risk groups,” such as medical workers, may be offered the vaccine this month. He didn’t clarify whether they would be part of the Phase 3 study that is said to be completed after the vaccine receives “conditional approval.”

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova promised to start “industrial production” in September, and Murashko said mass vaccination may begin as early as October.

U.S. officials say Russian intelligence officers are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus through English-language websites.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist, questioned the fast-track approach last week. “I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing a vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone, because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing ... is problematic at best,” he said.

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Questions about the Russian vaccine candidate come after the U.S., Britain and Canada last month accused Moscow of using hackers to steal vaccine research from Western labs.

Delivering a vaccine first is a matter of national prestige for the Kremlin as it tries to assert the image of Russia as a global power capable of competing with the U.S. and China. The notion of being “the first in the world” dominated state news coverage of the effort, with government officials praising reports of the first step in testing.

In April, President Vladimir Putin ordered state officials to shorten the time of clinical trials for a variety of drugs, including potential COVID-19 vaccines.

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According to Russia’s Assn. of Clinical Trials Organizations, the order set “an unattainable bar” for scientists who, as a result, “joined in on the mad race, hoping to please those [in] power.”

The association first raised concern in late May, when professor Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya institute, said he and other researchers tried the vaccine on themselves.

The move was a “crude violation of the very foundations of clinical research, Russian law and universally accepted international regulations,” the group said in an open letter to the government, urging scientists and health officials to adhere to clinical research standards.

But a month later, the Health Ministry authorized clinical trials of the Gamaleya product, with what appeared to be another ethical problem.

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Rich countries are placing advance orders for the inevitably limited supply of vaccine to guarantee their citizens are immunized first.

Human studies started June 17 among 76 volunteers. Half were injected with a vaccine in liquid form and the other half with a vaccine that came as soluble powder. Some in the first half were recruited from the military, which raised concerns that servicemen may have been pressured to participate.

Some experts said their desire to perform well would affect the findings. “It’s no coincidence media reports we see about the trials among the military said no one had any side effects, while the [other group] reported some,” said Vasily Vlassov, a public health expert with Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

As the trials were declared completed and looming regulatory approval was announced last week, questions arose about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. Government assurances that the drug produced the desired immune response and caused no significant side effects were hardly convincing without published scientific data describing the findings.

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The World Health Organization said all vaccine candidates should go through full stages of testing before being rolled out. “There are established practices and there are guidelines out,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said Tuesday. “Between finding or having a clue of maybe having a vaccine that works, and having gone through all the stages, is a big difference.”

A Chinese company is boasting that its employees received doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine before the government approved testing in people.

Offering an unsafe compound to medical workers on the front lines of the outbreak could make things worse, Georgetown’s Gostin said, adding: “What if the vaccine started killing them or making them very ill?”

Vaccines that are not properly tested can cause harm in many ways — from a negative impact on health to creating a false sense of security or undermining trust in vaccinations, said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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“It takes several years to develop any drug,” said Svetlana Zavidova, executive director of Russia’s Assn. of Clinical Trials Organizations. “Selling something the Gamaleya [institute] tested on 76 volunteers during Phase 1-2 trials as a finished product is just not serious.”

Russia has not yet published any scientific data from its first clinical trials. The WHO’s list of vaccine candidates in human testing still lists the Gamaleya product as in Phase 1 trials.

It uses a different virus — the common cold-causing adenovirus — that’s been modified to carry genes for the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus, as a way to prime the body to recognize if a real COVID-19 infection comes along. That’s similar to vaccines being developed by China’s CanSino Biologics and Britain’s Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

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It’s not the first controversial vaccine Russia has developed. Putin mentioned earlier this year that Russian scientists delivered an Ebola vaccine that “proved to be the most effective in the world” and “made a real contribution to fighting the Ebola fever in Africa.”

Russia’s Health Ministry authorized two Ebola vaccines for domestic use — one in 2015 and another one in 2018 — but there is little evidence either was widely used in Africa.

Russia’s Health Ministry did not respond to numerous requests for comment, and the Gamaleya institute referred an interview request to the ministry.

It remains unclear whether Phase 3 trials of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine candidate, to be carried out after the COVID-19 vaccine receives conditional approval, will wrap up by October, when health officials plan to start mass vaccinations, and how trustworthy the results will be. The study will supposedly involve 1,600 participants, 800 for each of the two forms of the vaccine. By comparison, a similar Phase 3 trial in the U.S. involves 30,000 people.


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