By Aamir Ahmad Amin
“My daughter has also received it”, boasted Vladimir Putin, the longest serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin, assuring that the breakthrough vaccine has passed all the “needed checks” under the Russian Health Ministry, but will nonetheless be skipping large scale safety trials before being doled out.
For a process that usually takes years, one may consider it plausible that accelerated clinical evaluations are necessary during a pandemic that has crippled established systems and transformed life as we know it. However, the act of cutting regulatory corners in a global race following what appears to be political pressure is unacceptable to both science and public safety.
In a world that has witnessed a shift in public trust over vaccines and the growth of anti-vaxxer movements, particularly in first world nations, how does celebrating a vaccine that has baby-stepped into its third phase merely two months into clinical testing find acceptance in a rational mind ? The World Health Organization (WHO), in a recent press release, has pointed out that “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”.
Scientists allege that “safety” and “effectiveness” are two key elements which have not been sufficiently evaluated in this case, and important steps in meticulous vaccine testing have been circumvented. What is further troublesome is a statement made by the Director of Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, implying there is little to no concern that it could harm an individuals’s health simply because it used “inanimate particles created by adenoviruses” that, he added, “cannot themselves multiply”. This notion is deeply misleading to the general public and is not a credible enough reason to support a nationwide immunization program. In fact, many other existent vaccines that also use “inanimate particles” like viral or cellular proteins are known – albeit rarely – to result in potentially life threatening AEFI (Adverse Events Following Immunization), such as seizures, anaphylaxis, encephalopathy, toxic shock syndrome, etc. not to think of how much this risk multiplies for a vaccine that has been subjected to a fraction of their level of rigorous testing and widespread use. It is ironic how the former USSR will be exporting this vaccine under the name Sputnik V, in reference to the satellite which “won” them the Cold War against America on the space front, considering the years of hardwork it took for them to bring that mammoth endeavour to fruition, which is far from being proportional to the hastened trials that have forseen the launch of its little-tested namesake.
A country which boasts of having gifted the world immunologists like the Nobel Prize winner Elie Mechnikov (1908), the discoverer of phagocytosis, as well as the great Alexander Maximow, who introduced the idea of stem cells, a modality that is listed as a potential treatment for COVID-19 in the latest guidelines published by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), should not compromise the safety of its citizens by any means, or that of the world at large – considering the barrage of orders it has received from over twenty countries.
All said and done, it is grossly unethical and unscientific to put national prestige before public health and with the release of this rushed vaccine, Russia seems to be doing exactly that.
(Aamir Ahmad Amin is a Final Year medical student at Khwaja Yunus Ali Medical College (KYAMC) )