Russia’s Sputnik vaccine gamble is all about Vladimir Putin

File photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin | Photo: Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg

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There was no clearer way of signaling how Russia sees its coronavirus vaccine: Moscow named it Sputnik, after the satellite whose launch in 1957 marked the start of the space race, and forced the West to confront an unexpected, and terrifying, technology gap.

Announcing the world’s first regulatory approval this week, President Vladimir Putin sought to repeat the propaganda masterstroke. Yet the rushed endorsement, after just two months of small-scale human testing, is less an affirmation of Russian scientific prowess than it is an expression of Putin’s hankering for Soviet-era international clout. It’s a premature victory lap that suggests a worrying need for affirmation at home too.

Russia has been in a hurry to win the vaccine race from the start, spotting the political benefit of being first with the inoculation the world is waiting for. It said in July that one of its prototypes, developed by the Gamaleya Institute, had completed the initial phase of tests. Then it began talking up plans for a mass vaccination program in the fall, brushing aside accusations that Moscow-backed hackers tried to steal research abroad. My colleagues in Moscow reported officials and billionaire tycoons had been getting the shots since April.

Now, ignoring public objections from the trade body representing the world’s top pharmaceutical companies in Russia, the country has pressed ahead with an official green light — even before the gold-standard, phase 3 trial that would typically involve thousands of subjects. Sweeping aside standard research procedure, Putin said in a televised meeting that all necessary checks had been cleared. It’s a triumph of spin over scientific protocol that even U.S. President Donald Trump hasn’t been able to pull off.

The scale of the gamble makes it hard to comprehend, even in a country that has counted more than 900,000 cases of the pneumonia-like illness. With only early-stage tests, as my colleague Max Nisen pointed out, Russia is taking a huge bet on the vaccine actually protecting enough people, safely. While adverse effects from vaccines are rare, they are not unheard of. Corner-cutting will hardly reassure a skeptical population.

There is also the fact that a national regulator’s OK doesn’t win you the global vaccine race. According to the World Health Organization, several candidate vaccines are already ahead of Russia’s in the final phase of testing, including one developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc, which uses a similar technology. Some, unlike Russia, have published data to support their claims.

So why bother?

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