An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kremlin Spin Doctors are Leading Russia’s Vaccine Development

With Sputnik V, the country is conflating good headlines with good health.

By , an assistant professor at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Democracy.
An employee wearing protective equipment is seen at the headquarters of Russia's biotech company, BIOCAD, which is developing its own COVID-19 vaccine, in Siberia, Vektor on May 20.
An employee wearing protective equipment is seen at the headquarters of Russia's biotech company, BIOCAD, which is developing its own COVID-19 vaccine, in Siberia, Vektor on May 20. Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

You’ve got a vaccine against COVID-19 that’s 90 percent effective? Well, Russia does too. So declared an official from Russia’s health ministry just hours after Pfizer released results of its Phase 3 study on Monday. Russia was also the first country to announce that it was approving a vaccine, called Sputnik V, which got the green light from regulators in August. (Some of Russia’s political elite had such confidence in Sputnik V that they tested it on themselves as early as April, just as the pandemic was slamming into their country. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s daughter even got a shot.) In October, the country’s speedy scientists won approval for a second vaccine.

Measured by their public health effort, there is little to show for Russia’s vaccine efforts. Putin’s daughter appears healthy, as far as we know, but Russia’ political elite has been hit hard by the virus. Prime minister Mikhail Mishustin contracted the virus this spring. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov did too, as did the ministers of culture and energy. Nineteen provincial governors also tested positive.

Presuming the Duma has been hit by a fair number of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, it could plausibly be the world’s only legislature to have reached herd immunity.

Moreover, the Russian Duma appears to have been the site of at least one super-spreader event. According to the Duma speaker, 20 percent of Duma deputies have fallen ill with COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic. And as of late October, he said, a staggering 38 Duma members—8 percent of the entire chamber—were hospitalized. You’d have been far safer attending Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination party than a hearing in Russia’s legislature. The one upside is that, presuming the Duma has been hit by a fair number of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, it could plausibly be the world’s only such body to have reached herd immunity.

Outside the legislature, Russia is far from herd immunity as it suffers a second wave as disastrous as any in Europe. Moscow alone is reporting thousands of cases each day. Other regions lack credible testing and reporting regimes but show evidence of a similarly severe pandemic. Moscow recently closed restaurants and bars from 11pm to 6am, leaving residents only 17 hours each day to contract coronavirus at their favorite watering hole. It is hard to see how such measures will slow the virus’s spread. Like in many countries, opposition to social distancing is growing. All this serves as a reminder that the world needs vaccines fast.

But Russia has one, you might point out. Well, the shot may have been notionally approved, but it is impossible to get.

The only option for Russians who are not members of the political elite to get the vaccine is to enroll in trials that are still underway, despite the earlier approval. (In fact, at least one of Russia’s COVID-stricken legislators, Valery Gartung, did participate in the Sputnik V trial and contracted the illness afterward. “Now I have a positive [COVID] test, which obviously means I got the placebo,” he explained.) However, the vaccine trial faces major delays. As of Nov. 11, 16,000 people had received both doses of the vaccine as part of the trial, according to the head of the institute that developed the vaccine. By contrast, Pfizer’s trial, the results of which were announced earlier this week, has given its two shots to nearly 39,000 people. Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are not far behind. Putin has blamed equipment shortages for the delay in expanding Sputnik V vaccine production.

Eventually, Sputnik V will be given to 30,000 trial participants, with 10,000 others given a placebo. But the latest data suggest full enrollment is at least weeks away. For now, there isn’t reliable information on whether the vaccine is safe or whether it works. Unlike Western pharma firms’ vaccine efforts, which have enrolled thousands of people in transparent tests, Russia’s vaccines are still in the early stages of their Phase 3 studies—the point at which vaccines are given to lots of people to assess their side effects and effectiveness compared to alternatives—and the protocols have raised concerns. Several dozen distinguished scientists signed an open letter pointing out suspicious patterns in the Russian vaccine’s early data as well as other inconsistencies in the description of the trial procedures. This lack of transparency explains why 59 percent of Russians tell pollsters they are unwilling to get vaccinated. Such politicization, however, hasn’t stopped countries from Brazil to India to Saudi Arabia from signing up to buy Sputnik V.

In the end, Russia’s vaccine probably will work, because despite being named after Sputnik, making a vaccine isn’t rocket science. Drug companies have decades of experience producing vaccines, and Russia has a well developed pharmaceutical industry. There’s no reason why a Russian lab shouldn’t be able to develop a COVID vaccine.

Unlike the satellite after which it is named, Sputnik V will not really be the world’s first vaccine against COVID-19. It is now clear that, despite approving a vaccine months ahead of all rivals, Russia will not be the first country where someone can walk into a pharmacy and get a shot. But Sputnik V already is the first vaccine in the world with its own Twitter account, as part of a broader campaign to publicize its successes by its funders, including the government-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund. It is also on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Opening a Twitter account before fully setting up a trial is an apt metaphor for Russia’s scientific efforts in general. Stunts have overtaken data and process. It isn’t a coincidence that the most public-facing figure behind the vaccine is not a scientist but rather a Kremlin-backed financier, Kirill Dmitriev, who heads the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is funding Sputnik V. This probably explains why the successes trumpeted in Sputnik’s press releases have far outstripped the scientific evidence that Russian scientists have released thus far.

Prioritizing political impact over medical efficacy isn’t a good way to run a health system. But health and science have not been Kremlin priorities for years, as funding has been cut and top scientists and doctors moved abroad. Spin doctors, though, remain highly valued by Russia’s leaders. The Kremlin’s entire vaccine “approval” process was designed as much to win headlines as to test antibody levels. We can say with 95 percent confidence that it is succeeding on at least one of these metrics.

Chris Miller is an assistant professor at the Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Democracy, the Eurasia director at Greenmantle, the Eurasia director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia. Twitter: @crmiller1