As governments and pharmaceutical companies around the world race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, Russia made a startling announcement on Monday that it already has one ready to go, and that the government will undertake a mass vaccination effort in the fall.
There’s just one problem: It might not, you know, work.
Russia’s vaccine has been tested on humans for a few weeks, but has not undergone the widespread and more long-term testing that comes with phase three trials, which scientists believe are essential in determining a vaccine’s efficacy and safety. Last week, the World Health Organization told Russia to follow internationally recognized protocol in bringing anything to market, a warning the government seems to have ignored.
The corner-cutting does not seem to bother Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose approval ratings sank as he appeared passive in the face a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the country this spring. “It works effectively enough, forms a stable immunity and, I repeat, it has gone through all necessary tests,” the Times reports Putin told a cabinet meeting, in a not very reassuring declaration. Putin also said that his daughter had been given the vaccine.
As it is, the timeline for developing a COVID-19 vaccine is proceeding at hyperspeed. The previous record for developing a vaccine was four years (for the mumps); Dr. Anthony Fauci and others have said that a coronavirus vaccine could be available in early 2021, about a year after the virus began spreading widely in China. Several candidates, developed by companies around the world, have already reached phase three testing. The speed of the efforts, while applauded by experts, has also led to worries that anti-vaxxers, whose influence is growing in many countries, will seize on the accelerated timeline to spread misinformation about the possible vaccine’s effectiveness. It seems likely that Russia, with its history of sowing doubt, will also try to undercut the narrative around Western-approved vaccines. But given this week’s news, it will probably have to find a different line of attack than “they rushed it.”