COVID-19 vaccine: Russia's Sputnik V rushed rollout raises doubts

COVID-19 vaccine: Russia's Sputnik V rushed rollout raises doubts

The shots for Sputnik V are available for free for those in medical and educational facilities, whether owned by the state or privately. Social and municipal workers, retail and service workers, and those in the arts can also get the shots at no cost

While there is global optimism regarding the developments surrounding COVID-19 vaccines by Western countries, Russia's vaccine candidate, Sputnik V, has received a mixed response. There have been reports of clinics being empty in Moscow that offered the vaccine to healthcare workers and teachers, them being the first priority for the vaccination drive.

There has been some amount of skepticism among Russians surrounding the vaccine, given that its approval was rushed when the vaccine was still in its late-stage trials.

While Kremlin officials and state-controlled media touted the Sputnik V vaccine as a major achievement after its approval on August 11, Russia faced global scrutiny for giving the green light to a vaccine that had not been studied elaborately.

Despite warnings from international experts as well as those at home against widespread use of the vaccine, authorities had started offering it to those at high-risk. Within weeks of approval, frontline medical workers were being inoculated, and according to Alexander Gintsburg, over 150,000 Russians had gotten the vaccine last week. Gintsburg is the head of the  Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology - where Sputnik V was developed.

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Dr. Alexander Zatsepin, an ICU specialist in Voronezh - a city 500 kilometers south of Moscow - had received the jab in October this year.

"We've been working with COVID-19 patients since March, and every day when we come home, we worry about infecting our family members. So when some kind of opportunity to protect them and myself appeared, I thought it should be used," he told the Associated Press. Having said that, he maintains that precautions are imperative against the virus as the studies for efficacy are not completely over.

"There is no absolute confidence yet," he added.

Britain had granted approval to the vaccine candidate by Pfizer and BioNtech on December 02. This prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to instruct authorities to begin a large-scale inoculation drive, indicating Moscow's eagerness to be ahead of any other nation in the race for vaccination.

Having said that, Russia does have a necessity of vaccines; the country has recorded more than 2.7 million cases of COVID-19 with over 49,000 deaths.

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The shots for Sputnik V are available for free for those in medical and educational facilities, whether owned by the state or privately. Social and municipal workers, retail and service workers, and those in the arts can also get the shots at no cost.

While no request has been made to the European Medicines Agency for licensing the Sputnik V for use in the EU, some data has been shared with the World Health Organisation. WHO does not approve vaccines by itself and waits for regulatory agencies to give their inputs first. Reportedly, the Russian vaccine is being considered for use in a global effort led by WHO to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. While only the elderly are receiving the Pfizer vaccine in the UK, Sputnik V is being administered to those aged 18 to 60 in Russia. Only those who don't have chronic illnesses and are neither pregnant nor breastfeeding can get the Russian shot. The developers of the vaccine have claimed the vaccine to be 91 per cent effective but the sample size for this efficacy survey was very small; 78 infections were observed among nearly 23,000 participants. Some experts say such efficacy rates inspire optimism, but public trust may be an issue.

A poll by the Levada Center earlier in October showed that 59 per cent of Russians were unwilling to get vaccinated even if the vaccine is offered for free. The Levada Centre is Russia's top independent sociological research organisation.

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Some medical workers and teachers interviewed by Associated Press also expressed skepticism about the vaccine, while for a lot of those in the former group, the choice to be vaccinated was easy.

"People are dying here every day. Every day, we carry out corpses. What's there to think about?" said Dr. Marina Pecherkina, an infectious disease specialist in the Far East city of Vladivostok. She too, was inoculated in October owing to regular interactions with coronavirus patients.

According to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, around 15,000 people received the jabs since vaccinations started on December 5. However, there have also been media reports of empty clinics who were offering the jabs to anyone who walked in. This has been attributed to the storage conditions for the vaccine, which requires a temperature of -18 degrees Celsius. In addition, each vial contains five doses of the vaccine and once defrosted, all doses must either be administered within two hours or discarded altogether.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko also declared that regions outside Moscow had commenced with the vaccination drive on December 15. But the response to the vaccine outside the Capital city remained lukewarm, reports said.

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