Putin Pulls an 'August Surprise' With His COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Announcement

Researchers and public health authorities around the world are alarmed by the speed and possible political motivation of the Russian vaccine timeline


Russian President Vladimir Putin announced today that Russia has won the global race to be the first country to produce and officially register an effective vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus. Putin also said that one of his daughters was a vaccine test subject who experienced a couple of days of fever after being inoculated but is now feeling well.

The absence of publicly available data and the speed with which the vaccine has been approved have alarmed researchers and public health authorities around the world. "This is a reckless and foolish decision. Mass vaccination with an improperly tested vaccine is unethical," declares University College London geneticist Francois Balloux in Nature. "Any problem with the Russian vaccination campaign would be disastrous both through its negative effects on health, but also because it would further set back the acceptance of vaccines in the population."

"If they get it wrong it could undermine the entire global enterprise," agrees Baylor College of Medicine vaccine scientist Peter Hotez also in Nature. "Not sure what Russia is up to, but I certainly would not take a vaccine that hasn't been tested in Phase III," said Florian Krammer, an immunologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, in a tweet. "Nobody knows if it's safe or if it works. They are putting [health-care workers] and their population at risk."

The vaccine has been dubbed "Sputnik V," as an homage to another global technological victory by Russia's Soviet predecessor state, the launching of the first orbital satellite Sputnik in 1957. Developed by the state-run Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, the viral vector vaccine uses a common cold virus that is engineered to carry selected coronavirus genes as the way to provoke an appropriate immune response. So far Russian researchers have not published any scientific data regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Russian officials have reportedly suggested that mass inoculation focusing first on health care workers and teachers would start as early as October. Russian media also announced that the government had received requests from 20 different countries for the production of 1 billion doses of the vaccine.

U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical companies are rushing at warp speed to develop and deploy safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. Some commentators have worried that President Donald Trump might try to pressure the Food and Drug Administration into approving a coronavirus vaccine before it's ready as an "October surprise" to boost his chances in a tight election. "This just cannot be allowed to happen," declared National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins on CNN today. Be that as it may, Vanderbilt University vaccine expert William Schaffner observed that Trump "has thrown the usual manual of how to function in a pandemic out the window" and Putin seems to be writing a new one.