Treading with caution
The quest to end the current pandemic has gone through several phases, starting with hope, transitioning to despair and then finally coming back to hope again. Grim outlooks regarding potential vaccines reminded those enthusiastic about the 'power of science' that humanity does not have a great record of ending such outbreaks in time and by the virtue of its own scientific might. There were many who even warned that any vaccine if developed, may not work to the required extent at all. Still, the need to keep calm saw many health experts give out timelines that were optimistic by any scientific standard. Months into the pandemic, now we have over 150 vaccines under development worldwide. Now, quiet optimism has given way to a mad rush once again, mixed with in with some measure of nationalistic pride in being the nation that frees the world from this contagion. Having your own vaccine under development has become a near necessity in this global race and having more than one is a mark of pride. Speed is naturally key to the narrative. The US Government has pledged to deliver 300 million doses by January 2021. In India, SII has announced that it will have 300-400 million doses ready of the front runner 'Oxford vaccine' by the end of the year even as the vaccine is still undergoing trials. WHO itself is looking towards a goal of two billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. Yes, optimism and bold claims are clearly the fashion at this stage but the whole process is still very much tempered by scientific caution. Getting the vaccine wrong by making unnecessary haste is harmful after all. While there have been a fair few reports of political executives worldwide almost bullying their vaccine makers for results, largely, a steady but measured pace has been kept in regards to vaccine development. At least until now.
Russia, the fourth hardest-hit country by the number of infections has become the first country to register what it claims is a working vaccine. The vaccine is one of Russia's two vaccine candidates and has been developed by the Gamaleya Scientific Research Institute. It has been named Sputnik V, perhaps in an attempt to allude to the time when Russia led from the front on innovations. While at least six vaccines across the world are in phase three of human trials, the world's first registered vaccine has just completed phase one and two on August 1. As yet, WHO or indeed any external observer has not had an opportunity to review the trials or their results. This combined with the fact that the vaccine is being rushed to market without the all-important mass human trials of phase three has led many within Russia and elsewhere in the world to question the safety of this vaccine. Geopolitics, after all, make nations resort to unusual, risky and desperate tactics in the quest to attain supremacy and Sputnik V could very well be a product of such geopolitics rather than measured scientific progress. Naturally, Russia has brushed aside the naysayers and has expressed immense confidence in its work. The vaccine is developed by a reputed institute and is based on proven technology that is based on the human adenovirus. The Health Ministry has stated that the vaccine is assured to grant COVID-19 immunity for at least two years. Announcing the accelerated timeline, the Health Minister Mikhail Murashko stated that the vaccine will be available for the general public by October but would be available even sooner — within two weeks — for frontline health workers.
As might be expected, the cynicism and disbelief regarding the vaccine is a prevalent narrative. But, at the same time, many nations have expressed interest with the likes of China, India, Philippines and Brazil expressing interest in the vaccine. India may even be a vital cog in the production of the virus given its impressive mass production capabilities. But there are clear reasons for India to take the path of caution.
Even within Russia, an RBC news online survey has shown that health professionals are not enthusiastic about the early rollout of the vaccine. The survey, involving more than 3,000 healthcare professionals showed that only 24 per cent were actively willing to get vaccinated by this vaccine. Most cited the haste of the development cycle as the reason while others pointed to the presently insufficient data to make a real call on the risks and benefits of getting the vaccine.
As of now, WHO has stated that it does not have enough information to include the new vaccine in its list of nine experimental vaccines that have been developed worldwide. At this stage, most countries will likely adopt a wait and watch strategy, keenly aware that the cost of haste can potentially outdo the cost of doing nothing. But there is a real risk of this new vaccine starting a dangerous trend that the world was only teetering on the edge of previously — that of prioritising nationalistic pride and good optics over the scientific process and human lives.