The Sputnik V Vaccine

Daniel Brooks

Last week, I learned that it’s possible to be injected by the Sputnik V vaccine for free, to those with Russian health insurance. As normal people were doing their last-minute holiday shopping, I went to my local polyclinic on December 30th to see if I could sign up. The process was fast and easy. Registration can also be done online, in minutes. I had my choice of a date and time to book a vaccination from January 1-13 2021. Every slot on each day was open. Muscovites are clearly in no hurry to be vaccinated by Sputnik V.

As it stands now, I can get jabbed on 12th of January. My dentist has told me not to get it. So has a neighbour of ours, who is an engineer. The Russian back specialist I use came down with COVID and afterwards his anti-body count was 40. He took the vaccine in December and it went up to 180 after one shot. He came down with a mild temperature that lasted a day after being jabbed. He recommends being vaccinated with Sputnik V.

I never thought the vaccine would be offered to me. Instead, I assumed the general public would be the guinea pigs and if everything works out for millions of them, I’d take it. I also heard that drinking alcohol wasn’t allowed two weeks before taking the vaccine and during 45 day period, afterwards. This turned out to be untrue but has probably led to hesitancy among many Russians during the holidays to be jabbed, until at least February.  

The vaccine was developed by Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, based in Moscow, giving the vaccine its officially designattion “Gam-COVID-Vac”. Sputnik V is the trade name and “V” stands for vaccine. It was conditionally approved for use in Russia on August 11, 2020 after an initial trial of the vaccine involving 38 people. The short testing period and limited number of people tested brought about a flood of criticism from scientists around the world. Few details about these initial tests were made available to scientists and medical specialists outside Russia, or so I read in the Russian and western media at the time. Since then, some Russians are skeptical about Sputnik V. A poll by the Levada Center shows that 59% of Russians would turn down the Sputnik V vaccine, if they could take it now. 

On 4 September the Phase I-II results came out, during which the total number of people tested came to 76. However, a pivotal Phase III of testing to prove the safety and efficacy of the vaccine by injecting a higher number of people, had not been finished at that time. In early September, several other vaccines were pending approval around the world. Accusations flew that conditional approval of the Sputnik V was done for purposes of prestige and publicity, before the crucial Phase III was completed. 

Nevertheless, Phase III of the testing went ahead and by December 10th, 40,000 people had been given the vaccine in Russia and other countries, according to the sources I’ve read. Phase III was declared a success by Ramil Khabriev of the Russian National Research Institute of Public Health. In any event, more comprehensive data about the data went out to the scientific community outside Russia in December. At that time, the vaccine was fully approved, and production began.

In early December, the first immunization centers were set up in Moscow at 70 locations and following that, similar ones have been created in other cities. The Moscow mayor promises 300 such locations for immunization in Moscow in early 2021, one of which I will now have the chance to visit. The mayor has been jabbed and so has the daughter of the President. By December 15th, about 150,000 Russians had been vaccinated with Sputnik V, according to Interfax. Presumably, these figures are accurate. 

As a neophyte and someone with no knowledge of immunization, medicine or science, I find myself relying on what the experts have to say. A google search finds a reaction from Stephen Evens, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who said, “The data [is] compatible with the vaccine being reasonably effective” and “These results are consistent with what we see with other vaccines, because the really big message for global health scientists is that this disease [COVID-19] is able to be addressed by vaccines.” Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, agreed, saying “I see no reason to doubt it [the results],” in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, adding, “I agree that their initial results caused consternation, but I don’t think it’s because they weren’t valid. They were released a bit soon.” Hopefully, these are reliable experts.

Sputnik V costs about $10 per dose, versus double that amount for vaccines approved and made elsewhere. According to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, demand is high. Orders for the vaccine have been received for over 1.2 billion doses of the vaccine in December. More than 50 countries have requested it. Partners in India, Brazil, China, South Korea and Hungary will set up production of the vaccine. India alone plans on producing 300 million doses of Sputnik V. 

The Russian Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA) is meanwhile developing a second vaccine. Research began in March, 2020 and development was projected to continue for a year. I’ve heard rumors it will be ready in a few months from now and some Russians I’ve spoken to are waiting for it to be released. It uses a technology that differs from Sputnik V which I don’t pretend to comprehend or will attempt to explain. 

So far, travel for Russians is restricted to many countries. In all likelihood, as soon as Russians are allowed to travel to Europe, something like a certificate of vaccination will be required to get through passport control. When that happens, I bet the demand for Sputnik V in Russia will skyrocket. This logic is known as “argumentum ad populum” defined as: ‘If many believe so, it is so’. It’s considered false logic, but one that is often followed. 

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 1 January 2021