Russia's COVID-19 Vaccine: Fact or Fiction?

Dear Asian Youth,

On August 11, 2020, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had created the first COVID-19 vaccine: Sputnik V. Sound familiar? Well that is because, according to Sputnik V’s website, “In 1957 the successful launch of the first space satellite by the Soviet Union reinvigorated space research around the world. The new Russian COVID-19 vaccine is therefore called Sputnik V.” When I heard this, my first reaction was speechless. This kind of news is beyond inspiring, especially during such a time when there seems to be no foreseeable end to the pandemic. However, as an educated citizen of society, or perhaps being an American skeptic, I feel that there is more to uncover.


Creating a vaccine is a timely and meticulous process. From creation, testing, and finally distribution, it can take up to years at a time. However, scientists around the world have already begun to cut out steps and shorten the process in hopes that a COVID-19 vaccine can come out in 12-18 months. This may feel like a long time, but think about it: how willing are we, as individuals and as a population, to put a comparably untested strain of attenuated virus in our bodies? For myself and many others, the answer is we are not—the risks and unknowns are too consequential. But when we look at Russia’s vaccine, many are skeptical they underwent the Phase 3 trials: where the vaccine is administered to thousands of volunteers to test effectiveness, risks, last, side effects, and so much more. According to Jon Cohen at Science Magazine, the vaccine has only been tested on 76 people, significantly lower than what we would hope for a life-saving cure. little information is known or has been gathered in support of the vaccine being viable. On a large scale, something deceptive like this could create public distrust in vaccines. Already, there are false claims towards links between vaccines and autism, the use of aluminum, and the pure effectiveness of it. Despite the confounding timeline, Russia claims they have not skipped steps. Kirill Dmitriev is the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund created under the Russian government in 2011 to make investments in leading companies. As an affluent member in society, he asserts that “Russian science is [simply] more advanced in this [area] than many other nations”.


According to President Putin, the vaccine “works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks”, not to mention, he claims his daughter has already received it as well. Despite these affirmations, many are worried about this vaccine, not only in terms of its scientific impacts, but political ones as well.


Surprisingly, there is much political background and incentive for Putin to put out such a vaccine. Previously, Putin had bragged about the effectiveness of Russia’s Ebola vaccine, when in fact very few people used it. Now, it seems as if, at a time when the world seems weak, it is Russia’s time to cut a piece of the vaccine cake from the US and China. A big announcement like this not only encourages and builds Russian morale but also shows off the scientific achievements as a sort of turn-around from its current situation.With this ongoing conflict, it creates what Vox has called “vaccine nationalism”, where global communities push their processes faster and faster to be the first and gain pride and recognition for their nation. This encourages groups to cut corners and, as previously stated, can create distrust. In addition, Russia has, compared to its neighbors, handled and contained the pandemic poorly, only supplementing the doubts many people have toward their president.


However, this situation has extended beyond the three superpowers; other countries are willing to try out this vaccine as well. Around 20 countries have expressed an interest in Russia’s vaccine, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte even saying he, himself would “guinea pig” the vaccine. This, whether intentional or unintentional, is an excellent chance for Russia to make diplomatic ties and strengthen the sphere of influence.


Despite all of this, not many experts are very worried this will encourage other organizations to quicken their processes. If anything, it may be a fight for “the most effective vaccine,” rather than the first. There are too many uncertainties in Russia’s vaccine: how much it will cost, how it will be distributed, the sheer effectiveness of it etc. What is important right now is that we stay safe and keep our bodies healthy by wearing masks and practicing social distancing—the vaccine will arrive in its own time.


- Allison Li