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From Russia with Love: On the Hunt for a COVID-19 Vaccine

Sep 16, 2020

The development of a vaccine normally takes years before reaching clinics. However, 2020 has not been a “normal” year. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) literally stopped the world, as all countries continue to struggle to contain the outbreak of the disease. The implications of COVID-19 are yet to be assessed, with so many lives lost and economies disrupted. Despite extraordinary measures to contain its spread, COVID-19 still poses a grave danger, as the new cases continue to mount worldwide, and there is no proven vaccine yet to protect the people. 

That said, there are optimistic forecasts that the vaccine is growing closer to becoming available As soon as information on the deadly virus became available, scientists around the world began the work on deciphering the coronavirus genome, with more than 170 teams of researchers racing to find the vaccine. The USA even launched a multi-billion-dollar initiative names “Operation Warp Speed” to fast-track the development of the drug. As of August 31, 2020, there were 36 vaccines in clinical trials on humans and nearly 90 preclinical vaccines under investigation in animals. 7 vaccines are currently in large-scale efficacy trials, known as Phase 3 trials, involving thousands of people to validate their safety and the absence of side effects. While the likes of Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech SE, Novavax and AstraZeneca are touted to be among the primary contenders to deliver the first effective coronavirus vaccine , it is yet unclear whether the much-anticipated vaccine will produce the required immune system response. 

In this context, August 11’s announcement from Russian President Vladimir Putin comes as a huge surprise. Putin proclaimed that Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology developed the first safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, named “Sputnik-V”. At the briefing, Putin lauded the work of Russian scientists and even revealed that his daughter was among those volunteers who received the first shots of the Russian vaccine. At the briefing, Putin also conveyed his well wishes to foreign colleagues working on vaccines, and his officials specifically praised Chinese efforts. 

Instead of receiving plaudits for developing the coveted vaccine though, the Russian government was criticized for rushing out the treatment, which has only been tested on 76 people. Scientists around the world condemned the Kremlin’s plans of mass vaccination arguing that the vaccine has not passed the large-scale efficacy trials yet. The Russian’s urgency is what really worries the scientific community, although the Russian vaccine is based on a fairly prevalent viral vector approach that many international teams are using in their vaccine development. Nonetheless, should the Russian vaccine flop, its failure will not only affect public health, but it can also negatively impact the further development of a vaccine.  

International outcry appears to be of little concern to Moscow though. The Kremlin plans to gradually roll out the vaccination with Russian teachers and doctors poised to be the first recipients. Russian health regulators swiftly approved mass vaccination to start in October 2020. Certainly, Moscow’s decision to eliminate the approval requirements of Phase 3 trials comes off as a political choice. Dubbed as “Sputnik-V” in reference to the world’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviets, the Kremlin dreams of splendors of its Soviet past, when it was the world’s second superpower alongside the US. By rushing the vaccine to the market, Moscow seeks to prove that it continues to be a global scientific force , potent enough to save the world from the deadly virus. 

The reference to the Chinese vaccine development efforts on such a high level was not coincidental. The modern realities are as such, that China remains the only powerful ally of Russia in the international arena. Daunting prospects of a pariah state, international sanctions, low prices on oil, and a lack of demand for Russian natural gas in Europe leaves little choice for Moscow, but to accelerate the rapprochement with its Eastern neighbor. In addition, both Moscow and Beijing found a common enemy in the US and its current administration. Sino-American and Russo-American relations are suffering from the worst downswing in decades, and there are no signs that these relationships will improve, even if Joe Biden replaces Donald Trump in the White House. 

Accordingly, the prospects that China and Russia will request and receive an American-developed vaccine against COVID-19 remain slim. This can be partially verified by the warnings from the security services of the US, UK, and Canada that hackers operating as part of Russian intelligence services were targeting vaccine development efforts from these countries. In line with the classic realist doctrine of self-help, it may be inferred that the Russian, and perhaps even Chinese leadership believes that they can rely on no one but themselves for survival and security. 

In fact, Beijing also gave the green light to newly developed vaccines by Chinese Sinovac Biotech and CanSino Biologics. Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine candidate was approved for the emergency use by high-risk groups such as medical staff, while CanSino Biologics’ vaccine candidate was approved for the use by the Chinese military. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health of Saudi Arabia announced that they are developing an action plan to run the Phase 3 clinical trials in Riyadh, Makkah and Dammam with the Chinese CanSino Biologics, while CanSino Biologics has already arranged the start of the Phase 3 trials for August 30 in Pakistan. 

Most likely, both Russian and Chinese vaccines will be available at discounted rates for its satellite states. The Russian representatives asserted that they have received preliminary applications for the purchase of 1 billion doses of their vaccine from 20 countries. Such states as Jordan, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Serbia have already expressed open interest in the Russian vaccine. In any case, the outbreak of COVID-19 reminded the public that health issues belong to the global security agenda. As the Sputnik-V story has shown, even the race for the COVID-19 vaccine is more about the race rather than about the vaccine itself. 

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