Putin: We have a vaccine

In case it wasn’t clear enough that Putin views being “first” in the global vaccine race as a matter of intense national prestige, they’re calling their product “Sputnik V.”

Congrats to Russia on having won the Cold War after all, I guess.

No, actually, this is propaganda, as you might expect. Watch, then read on.

As I understand it, vaccine candidates typically go through three phases of testing. Phase one tests the product for basic safety on a small number of people. If it’s safe, phase two broadens the sample to many hundreds of people and tests for whether it produces antibodies. If it does then it’s on to phase three for the big test, whether the product actually prevents the disease from developing in people who’ve been infected or, if the vaccine is really effective, prevents infection from happening in the first place. That test involves tens of thousands of subjects since researchers need to be confident that some members of their sample will actually encounter the virus while living their daily lives. If you test on only 100 people, say, and none get sick, you won’t have a sense of whether the vaccine protected them or whether collectively they just weren’t exposed much to the virus during the observation period.

Several American vaccines, like Moderna and Novavax, have already cleared phases one and two and are either conducting phase three right now or are about to. Russia’s counter is to … simply skip phase three altogether. They’ve tested their product on only a few dozen people and seem confident that it’s producing antibodies in recipients — although, not surprisingly, they haven’t shared their data with the world. Instead of doing a proper phase three, i.e. a clinical study in which thousands are given the vaccine and thousands are given a placebo and then the rates of infection in the two groups are compared, they’re just going to roll that sucker out into the population and hope for the best.

And not just in Russia, either. A number of autocrats across the world are clamoring to treat their constituents as guinea pigs for Putin’s vaccine. Even some Russian scientists are concerned.

Russia on Tuesday became the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine for use in tens of thousands of its citizens despite international skepticism about injections that have not completed clinical trials and were studied in only dozens of people for less than two months…

“Fast-tracked approval will not make Russia the leader in the (vaccine) race, it will just expose consumers of the vaccine to unnecessary danger,” Russia’s Association of Clinical Trials Organizations said Monday, urging government officials to postpone clearing the vaccine without completed advanced trials…

The trials study will span several countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and possibly Brazil, and involve “several thousand people,” Dmitriev said. In the meantime, the vaccine will be offered to tens of thousands of people who volunteer to be vaccinated…

According to officials, large-scale production of the vaccine will start in September, and mass vaccination may begin as early as October.

“[B]ecause it’s testing a much larger group of people, a Phase 3 trial can also pick up more subtle side effects of a vaccine that earlier trials could not,” notes the Times, ominously. Putin sought to reassure skeptics by having his own daughter receive the vaccine, which he admits generated a brief fever in her before she felt better. Involving his own child is his way of encouraging people to ask themselves, “If he weren’t confident that the vaccine was safe, would he really have allowed his own kid to be injected it?”

To which one might reasonably answer: Well, yes? What has this guy ever said or done to convince anyone that his moral scruples might intervene in a matter that would otherwise enhance Russia’s, and his own, international prestige?

Scott Gottlieb was asked this morning on CNBC if he’d take the Russian product, which is an adenovirus vaccine along the lines of what Oxford is working on. No thanks:

Why would anyone willingly be injected with something that’s barely been tested and for which data isn’t available?

I don’t buy Gottlieb’s suggestion, though, that this is a way for Putin to bait Trump into trying to rush through America’s own leading vaccine candidate. Certainly, the risk is there. For the planet’s authoritarians, the vaccine race is a sort of dong-measuring contest and Trump won’t like being told that his/America’s dong isn’t the biggest. A senior official who’s working on the White House’s COVID response told WaPo recently, “Everyone is busy trying to create a Potemkin village for [Trump] every day. You’re not supposed to see this behavior in liberal democracies that are founded on principles of rule of law. Everyone bends over backwards to create this Potemkin village for him and for his inner circle.” Would the yes-men around him try to create a Potemkin village about the vaccine, assuring him that we have enough data to approve a leading candidate when we really don’t? Sure.

But the difference between Trump and Putin, I think/hope, is that American scientists would feel more comfortable speaking out against that than their Russian counterparts might. Trump and his team don’t have the credibility to sell an untested product to a public that’s already skeptical of vaccines if doctors are out there claiming that it’s not ready for primetime. Look at what happened with hydroxychloroquine: Four days ago a poll found that 59 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump sharing videos touting the drug’s alleged efficacy against COVID. If there’s that much skepticism about HCQ, a medication that’s been used commercially in other contexts for decades, imagine the skepticism about a rushed-through novel vaccine with people like Gottlieb on TV every day insisting that it might not be safe.

It also doesn’t make sense strategically. If it’s true that Russia favors Trump in the election while China and Iran favor Biden, why would Putin want to hand Democrats a pre-election talking point like, “Trump is so incompetent that even second-world countries are beating us to the vaccine”?

And then there’s the matter of Putin having to put up or shut up. Now that he’s announced that the vaccine has been approved, word will trickle out from Russia this fall about whether the product is effective or not. Even if Putin can bottle that up to a large degree, some sense will be gleaned from other countries where the vaccine is being administered, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as to whether it works or not. If it’s a bust, his prestige will suffer. That’s a mighty big risk for him to take just to get a leg up on the U.S.

Speaking of which, I think the geopolitical backdrop to today’s announcement is worth noting. Mass protests have rocked parts of eastern Russia over the past few weeks; meanwhile, Belarus, on Russia’s western flank, seems headed for civil war after allegations of fraud by the incumbent in its recent presidential election. Putin is now backing that incumbent, a way for him to reassert Russian influence in a former Soviet state. Both at home and (slightly) abroad, in other words, he’d benefit from a major shot of prestige right now. Lo and behold, here he is announcing the world’s first state-approved coronavirus vaccine. The timing is suspiciously fortuitous.

But hey, maybe it’ll work. Here’s hoping. Exit quotation

https://twitter.com/lachlan/status/1293163086162137089