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Coronavirus diary – Part 36

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
09 December 2020   |   4:25 am
The spread of COVID-19 and its lethality, though less in intensity to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, set off the race for a vaccine. As is well-known, vaccines take years to produce.

HOUSTON, TX – NOVEMBER 14: Medical staff members prepare to perform a treatment on a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at the United Memorial Medical Center on November 14, 2020 in Houston, Texas. According to reports, Texas has reached over 1,070,000 cases, including over 19,900 deaths. Go Nakamura/Getty Images/AFP Go Nakamura / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

The spread of COVID-19 and its lethality, though less in intensity to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, set off the race for a vaccine. As is well-known, vaccines take years to produce. There was initial skepticism about shortening the cycle of production to possibly 18 months. Of course, there are many vaccine candidates from the leading industrial nations like Britain, China, Russia, and the United States among many other countries. 

Conventionally, vaccines go through three stages of trials, namely the laboratory, testing in animals, and lastly, humans in large numbers. Indeed, the value of phase 3 clinical trials lies in the validation of vaccine efficacy and the assessment of side effects.  But in August, Russia, that country that took over the inheritance of the once-powerful Soviet Union announced that it had breasted the tape in the vaccine race. It went further to register its vaccine, Sputnik V ready for mass inoculation. Humanists, like this writer, thought that whatever can cure and halt the march of COVID-19 and its associated social paralysis would be welcome by all. In the world of geopolitics underpinned by production relations of “callous cash payment” and acquisition of spheres of influence, the game is different. Talks of “vaccine nationalism” surfaced.  

Peter Beaumont whose piece in the UK Guardian is titled “Russia’s coronavirus vaccine: will it work, and is it safe?” aptly notes that: “The race to find a vaccine against COVID-19 has not always been particularly edifying, driven at times by so-called “vaccine nationalism”, much cautioned against by the World Health Organization, which has itself been accused of being invested as much in self-interest and prestige as global public health”.

The West would have none of it. In Beaumont’s view, Russia’s Sputnik V fits into this strain of “vaccine nationalism”. In a seeming historical reversal of Winston Churchill’s iron curtain metaphor employed against the former Soviet Union, the West would draw the blind over the discovery in the land of Vladimir Lenin. The charges of course have come in torrents of “opacity” and “ethnicity”. Beaumont is unsparing. He notes that “And so far, despite the often anecdotal claims by Russian officials, the progress of the Russian vaccine – whatever its real promise eventually turns out to be – has been marked by worrying opacity and ethical issues”. Volunteers including military personnel are suspected to have been pressurized to partake in the trials and to maintain silence over side effects.

Matthew Schmidt, an expert on Russia at New Haven University, quoted by Beaumont expresses: “My fear is that Putin has just lowered the number of people willing to take any vaccine – even people here. Cheating on the scientific process hurts the perception of vaccine safety everywhere…The problem with any Russian vaccine is that the way it was tested undermines public faith in it. Even if it works, it’s unlikely to be widely adopted in the rest of the world”. 

Jen Kirby of Vox.com in her piece “Sputnik V: Is Russia first to a COVID-19 vaccine? Not so fast”, lays more charges against the Russia vaccines. There is a charge of bypassing large-scale trials involving a significant population. It is alleged that the vaccine has only been tested on paltry 76 people. In toll is the charge of propaganda stunt due to the naming of the vaccine Sputnik V reminiscent of its space exploit in 1957 to project Russian power to the rest of the world, and consolidates it at home. Also, is the charge of non-sharing of findings by The Moscow-based Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology that developed the vaccine. 

It is to be noted however that these charges follow a beaten track. Before the August revelation of its vaccine, there were charges of technology theft against Russia. The trio of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom alleged that hackers with links to Russian intelligence were attempting to glean Intel on drug companies and related researches. Russia had then parried it off as a smear campaign. Indeed, Mr. Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, remarked that the smear campaign was in fear of the Russian vaccine being effective and hitting the market before others. 

Russia has held its ground on its claims about the Sputnik V vaccine. Russian officials have expressed a hope that the antibody response that it provokes could last up to two years. President Vladimir Putin whose daughter has been vaccinated attests to the efficacy of the vaccine. According to him: “I know that it works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks.” Besides, Dmitriev while denying charges of cutting corners, affirmed that “Russian science is more advanced in this [area] than many other nations.” World Health Organization welcomed the Russian vaccine as a useful addition to research and development on COVID-19 but warned against circumvention of safety procedures.

Given the apparent politicisation of vaccine production, Kirby has warned about the potential damage of geopolitics. As she puts it, “If geopolitics co-opts science and cooperation, the world loses out.” 

Geopolitics and the conquest of the market are in, and that could only explain the British adoption of Pfizer vaccine on 2 December for emergency-use authorization within a timeframe of seven months after the beginning of clinical trials to the abandonment of the Oxford viral-vectored vaccine which might be safer than Pfizer’s.

The Philippines and Brazil are well disposed towards the Russian vaccine and Brazil has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Moscow on the production of the vaccine by 2021. Russia has equally reached out to Indian pharmaceutical company, Hetero to produce over 100 million doses by 2021, and may go for about $10 in the international market.

A world of a single vaccine is thralldom. But importantly, the voice of the anti-vaxxers, lately reechoed by Dr. Mike Yeadon, Pfizer’s former Vice President and Chief Scientist for Allergy and Respiratory, and others who have insisted that there is no need for a vaccine against the pandemic. The reason as Yeadon puts it is that “There is absolutely no need for vaccines to extinguish the pandemic. I’ve never heard such nonsense talked about vaccines. You do not vaccinate people who aren’t at risk from a disease. You also don’t set about planning to vaccinate millions of fit and healthy people with a vaccine that hasn’t been extensively tested on human subjects
Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.