Russia ‘wins’ Covid-19 vaccine race, but critics say it’s a hollow victory

BOSTON — It was likely meant to give the impression of Russian superiority, but Tuesday's announcement by President Vladimir Putin that the country had approved the first Covid-19 vaccination for general use was really just the opposite, said Matthew Schmidt, PhD, a professor of political science and national security at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. 

"He's a weak leader," Schmidt said. "He's authoritarian because he does not have the strength of a robust economy, the strength of a population that really believes in him as much as sort of forced to go along with him."

In this case, the population will be going along with a vaccine approved without performing a key study -- a large 'Phase Three' trial involving hundreds of participants. Problems with a drug's safety or efficacy sometimes don't show up until these larger studies are completed. 

"It's really critical before licensing a vaccine and distributing it for wide use that it be proven to actually prevent infection and that it be demonstrated to be safe," said Daniel Kuritzkes, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "There's just no shortcut to doing very large studies with lots of people to be able to establish those facts."

In a statement to Boston 25 News, Kelly Moore, MD, MPH of The Immunization Action Coalition agreed:

“The Russian government’s approval of a vaccine for public use without the benefit of results from tests in large clinical trials does not alter in any way vaccine approval plans in the U.S. This is NOT a race: we want a vaccine that is safe and effective. Taking shortcuts and declaring a vaccine ready for public use before it has completed normal safety and effectiveness testing is not a victory – it’s just a gamble. Thankfully for us, it’s not a gamble that the U.S. or most other countries would take.”

The Russian Covid-19 vaccine, like some others under development in the United States, uses a common cold virus, known as adenovirus 5, to 'carry' some genetic material from the Covid-19 virus into the body. 

This fools the human immune system into thinking it's under invasion by Covid-19 -- and thus antibodies are produced. 

But in the past, other vaccines tested using this delivery system have proven a disappointment when subsequent "booster" doses are given -- because at that point, the immune system mainly 'sees' the adenovirus, with which it is very familiar. 

"Because you've been exposed so many times to this particular strain of adenovirus 5 and have pre-existing immunity the vaccine doesn't get a chance to make enough of the Covid proteins to be able to induce an immune response," Kuritzkes said. The result is the adenovirus carriers come under attack, inactivating the vaccine. 

It's unknown whether the same thing will happen with Covid-19 vaccines developed using this carrier system. And that's part of why Phase Three trials are so important.   

Schmidt, who was an election monitor during the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election, said Putin has good reason to want Russians to feel things are turning a corner -- because they have been going badly. 

"Russia has been very heavily hit with the virus and it's driven a lot of the discontent with the government to a level we haven't seen in a decade or more," Schmidt said. 

The Moscow Times reports Russia has seen 897,599 total cases of Covid-19 with 15,131 deaths. 

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