Many will have heard Russia’s announcement that they have approved a coronavirus vaccine. I’ve already had several people ask me what I think of it, so let me be clear: I think it’s a ridiculous publicity stunt. If it’s supposed to make Russia look like some sort of biotechnology powerhouse, then as far as I’m concerned it does the opposite. It makes them look desperate, like the nation-state equivalent of a bunch of penny-stock promoters. The new airliner design prototype just got off the ground – time to sell tickets and load it full of passengers, right?
Why so negative? Look at what’s being claimed – the first coronavirus vaccine to receive regulatory approval. But “regulatory approval” is not some international gold standard, and these sorts of decisions show you why. Let’s be honest: there is no way that you can responsibly “approve” a vaccine after it’s only been into human trials for what numerous reports say is less than two months. That’s about enough time to do the first steps, a Phase I trial that gives you some idea of immune response across more than one dose. It is simply not enough time to do a reasonable efficacy workup as well, and absolutely not enough time to get any sort of reading on safety. Here’s a good article going into those timelines in more depth.
Look, we’re pushing safety and efficacy trials harder than they’ve ever been pushed already, and many people already are jumpy about the safety evaluations of the various vaccine candidates as it is. Declaring regulatory approval and taking a public victory lap in the world press before you’ve even done that safety work at all inspires pity rather than respect. The various news stories on this “approval” generally have quotes from outside experts saying that it’s important to see if Russia is following best practices and such, but that’s easy to answer. They aren’t. There are several other vaccines that could be “approved” already if we thought that this was a good idea. But it isn’t.
So what is this vaccine candidate, anyway? It’s being developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute, and it’s reported to be a mixture of two adenovirus vectors, Ad5 and Ad26. I’m still not sure what the idea behind giving both of those might be, but those two approaches are of course being used separately by other vaccine developers. The Gamaleya folks seem to like these mixed-vector vaccines – here’s a VSV/Ad5 Ebola candidate they were working on. Overall, the idea behind the vaccine doesn’t seem to be bizarre at all, though – just the development timelines.
This is just naked “vaccine nationalism”, which is really the last thing we need right now. I don’t want to see any country (including the US) beating its chest in this fashion and using the pandemic to declare the superiority of its system or its scientists. Coronavirus research needs to be as international as possible, with ideas, approaches, publications, and trials coming from around the world. This sort of stunt is taking us backwards – now people will be agitating for the “approved” Russian vaccine and wondering why the others aren’t ready yet, etc. It just creates confusion and discord – don’t we have enough of those already? Unless, of course, creating confusion and discord is the point. . .