Russia approved a coronavirus vaccine before confirming it was safe and effective. Experts say the nation’s risky bet paid off.

Russia approved a coronavirus vaccine before confirming it was safe and effective. Experts say the nation’s risky bet paid off.

russia coronavirus vaccine sputnik v vladimir putin

Left: Russian president Vladimir Putin. Right: Doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.

Left: Aleksey Nikolskyi/AP; Right: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

  • Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, called Sputnik V, is 91.6% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, according to a peer-reviewed analysis published Tuesday.
  • The country approved its vaccine in August, before conducting late-stage clinical trials.
  • Experts worried the controversial approach might overlook potentially dangerous side effects — but the new results indicate that Russia’s risky bet may have paid off.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Russia became the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine in August and start distributing shots in early December. Now it has some reliable data that those vaccines may be about as effective as those authorized for emergency use in the US and UK.

Unlike the US or UK, Russia approved its vaccine — called Sputnik V — before conducting phase 3 trials. These late-stage trials typically evaluate a medical treatment in tens of thousands of people to determine how well it works, ensure that it’s safe, and uncover any side effects.

When Russia approved Sputnik V for distribution, only 38 people had received the vaccine in clinical trials. All of them produced antibodies, and side effects were mostly mild — including elevated temperatures and headaches. That research had not undergone peer review, though.

As Sputnik V was distributed to frontline healthcare workers in December, medical experts warned that the data was insufficient to determine whether the vaccine was safe and effective. Some scientists suggested that the vaccine approval may have been rushed for political reasons.

But Russia’s risk seems to be paying off. An interim analysis of phase 3 trials published in The Lancet on Tuesday suggests that Sputnik V is 91.6% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19.

“I think everything has been done perfectly and this moment is in some ways a vindication moment,” Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), told Insider in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. The RDIF is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, and has overseen and financed the development of Sputnik V.

Dr. Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at the UK’s University of Leicester, told Insider the nation’s risky approach “has been justified to some extent now.”

Russia plowed forward on vaccinations, despite blowback

russia coronavirus vaccine

Medical workers prepare to draw blood from volunteers participating in a coronavirus vaccine trial at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia on July 15, 2020.

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File

Sputnik V is given in two doses. Each dose relies on a different adenovirus — relatively harmless viruses associated with the common cold — to deliver a gene that codes for the coronavirus’ spike protein, which helps it attach to and invade cells. In theory, this should train the immune system to produce antibodies that ward off symptomatic disease.

The Gamaleya Institute in Moscow and the Russian Ministry of Defence developed the vaccine in tandem.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on August 11 that the country’s health agency had approved the new vaccine following phase 1 and 2 clinical trials. Some virus experts feared that any severe side effects missed in those early trials could undermine public trust in other vaccines, too.

“This is a reckless and foolish decision. Mass vaccination with an improperly tested vaccine is unethical. Any problem with the Russian vaccination campaign would be disastrous both through its negative effects on health, but also because it would further set back the acceptance of vaccines in the population,” Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said in a statement distributed by the UK Science Media Centre.

Despite these concerns, Russia’s health ministry began producing batches of

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