Now more than ever, we should remember that the field of medical advancement, meant to improve the lives of all regardless of national origin or political ideology, should remain neutral.
Back in August, I wrote an article following President Putin’s announcement that Russia had announced and registered the first Covid-19 vaccine in the world, produced and tested by the Gamaleya Research Institute. The vaccine, named “Sputnik V” as a nod to the scientific achievements of Russia and the former Soviet Union, was built upon existing vaccine capabilities that were already proven to be effective by research institutes in the Russian Federation and several of their collaborators abroad. In that article, using my own background in Immunology and Vaccine Development, I responded to some of the most heavily repeated criticisms that were heard about Sputnik V.
Among the concerns that were addressed was that scientific data supporting the vaccine had yet to be published. As I mentioned in my previous article, this is a very valid concern. If hundreds of millions of people are going to be given a vaccine, or any form of medical treatment for that matter, the data must be publicly available and be subject to scientific scrutiny. Since the announcement of Sputnik’s V registration in Russia and the subsequent outcry from Western Scientists, the data from the first two phases of vaccine trials were released. These data showed a high degree of effectiveness, with the vast majority (approximately 95%) of study participants showing high antibody titers.
When Russia initially announced the successful completion of Phase I and II trials of Sputnik V and subsequently registered the vaccine for emergency use within Russia, multiple countries approached Russia about either manufacturing the vaccine within their borders, administering it to their population, or both. The first to express such interests were India, which in August had the highest daily rates of Covid-19 infections worldwide, and Israel, whose Hadassah Medical Institute complemented the Gamaleya Institute on creating such a vaccine. Since then, other countries have also expressed interest in procuring Sputnik V for their population.
In the months following Putin’s announcement, even more countries have offered to either assist with the manufacturing and distribution of Sputnik V or had expressed interest in purchasing mass quantities of the vaccine for their own populations. Among such countries are Brazil, China, and South Korea. Despite such interest from many nations, there is still a great amount of Western opposition to Russia’s vaccine.
I had mentioned that many criticisms of Sputnik V were a manifestation of a phenomenon termed as “vaccine nationalism.” This trend has two components: The first being that individual countries will attempt to put their population in higher priority in relation to other countries’ populations, especially in the beginning of mass vaccination campaigns when doses of a vaccine are definitely going to be scarce.
Realistically speaking, there is no way to avoid this. While international cooperation is absolutely necessary and admirable, it is important to remember that the government of each individual nation has a duty to its population, so long as it does not come as a major detriment to the people of other countries. This facet of vaccine nationalism is likely something that will be seen in every country around the globe, from China to the United Kingdom, and from Russia to the United States.
The second component of vaccine nationalism that has been less addressed is that of individual countries attempting to have the vaccine or treatment developed within their own borders and within their own research institutes as “the best,” namely producing the best and longest-lasting immune response to the virus. While a decent amount of competition certainly is healthy, and absolutely not without scientific collaboration, this has the potential to develop into something much uglier: Countries refusing or forcing other countries to refuse a life-saving vaccine simply due to the fact that it was developed by a geopolitical rival.
To some extent, this has already occurred. Back in November, Hungary expressed interest in procuring Sputnik V to distribute to its population. Hungary was then subsequently asked by the European Union to stop all inquiries into securing Sputnik V doses. After some debate, the European Commission decided to give Hungary permission to use Sputnik V – on the condition that it does not leave Hungary’s borders.
Because of the interconnectedness of the modern world, such a mentality is especially dangerous. Among the major challenges facing all existing Covid-19 vaccines to date is that they were produced and tested at such a speed, that it is not known with a great degree of certainty just how long any vaccine-induced immunity would last. Thus, even if many countries manage to have successful vaccination campaigns within their own borders, if there is a country, regardless of where in the world, that refuses a vaccine for any reason, geopolitical or otherwise, it introduces the possibility of new Covid outbreaks worldwide in the future. In short, we are not safe until we are all safe.
However, there is reason to be hopeful. In contrast to the episode between Hungary and the European Union, there have been examples of Western Research Institutions willing to collaborate with Russian Immunologists and Research Institutes on a Covid-19 vaccine.
More recently, the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which has been testing its own vaccine, has offered to collaborate with the Gamaleya Institute, to see if some combination of the two vaccines would increase the efficacy. It is not impossible that as further data for Sputnik V and other vaccines continue to roll out following mass vaccination campaigns, that other institutes will want to partner with Gamaleya for future vaccine studies, and possibly with other Russian Research Institutes that develop further vaccines, Covid or otherwise.
All politics aside, it is remarkable that within a year of a novel virus being identified and its genome being sequenced, that there is not only one, but several very promising vaccines that are ready to be delivered to the global public. However, even though the end of the pandemic is now in sight, it is not important to give into pre-existing geopolitical fault lines and potentially deprive people of a life-saving vaccine or treatment. Now more than ever, we must remember that while topics such as foreign relations and trade will come with inherent biases and countries putting their interests above all others, that the field of medical advancement, meant to improve the lives of all regardless of national origin or political ideology, should remain neutral.
Mark Mednikov is a Board Member of the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC) and an expert in Immunology and Vaccine Development.