Russia’s rapid Covid-19 vaccine approval draws intense criticism - but also collaboration offers

The new Russian vaccine has been named after the Sputnik satellite (artist's illustation:Kordite)

Russia’s speedy approval of a COVID-19 vaccine this week drew widespread criticism from health ministers, researchers, and even a Russian-based pharma industry association.

However, it has also spurred interest and offers to collaborate on continued testing, including from quarters as far-flung as Israel and the Philippines.

Why is this important? The Russian Covid-19 vaccine, dubbed Sputnik V, is the first in the world to receive national regulatory approval, even ahead of any large-scale Phase III trial. Nor have results from Russia’s Phase I and II trials, where the vaccine was administered to less than 100 people, been released. This has triggered concerns that the country is jumping the gun in a bid to showcase Russia’s scientific prowess, but setting a dangerous precedent.

“It is not about being first, it is about having an effective, a tried and with that, a safe vaccine,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told the radio station Deutschlandfunk on Wednesday.

“The problem is that we know very little because the Russian authorities are not being transparent. To have trust in such a vaccine, I believe it is important to do the necessary testing even in times of pandemic and to make everything public.”

Despite a chorus of criticism, the Russian announcement has stirred interest in some countries. Zeev Rotstein, head of Israel’s Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical Center said that Haddassah would collaborate in testing the Russian vaccine candidate: “We are playing a part in conducting safety and efficacy studies,” Rotstein told The Jerusalem Post.  He said that Israel, a biomedical powerhouse that is also home to some 1 million Russian emigres, should not put all of its cards in the basket of the American vaccine being developed by the Boston-based biotech firm, Moderna.

“There are a lot of accusations regarding Russian technology and science. But if you remember, the fact that they called it Sputnik V is to say to the world, ‘Remember who was first in space,’ ” Rotstein said, referring to the fact that Russia’s Sputnik I was the first satellite to successfully enter space.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization was characteristically neutral — refraining from overt criticism of Russia, an active WHO member state, although stressing the importance of adhering to established R&D procedures.

“Accelerating vaccine research should be done following established processes through every step of development, to ensure that any vaccines that eventually go into production are both safe and effective,” said a WHO spokesperson.

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Health Policy Watch - Russia’s Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Draws Intense Criticism From Some – And Offers To Collaborate From Others