In two days’ time, the first shipment of the Russian-made coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V is due to arrive in Iran. After weeks of concerns raised by Iranian officials about the lack of information published about the vaccine, an interim analysis of clinical trials published today in The Lancet appears to confirm that Sputnik V is indeed safe and effective.
Ever since its registration in August 2020, Sputnik-V has been an object of geo-political controversy. It has so far been approved for use in just 15 countries, including Iran and just one country in the European Union (Hungary, which enjoys wider strategic relations with Russia). The wider EU remains sceptical and Sputnik V also has yet to receive the green-light from the World Health Organization.
But according to the data published by Russian scientists today, phase 3 clinical trials involving nearly 20,000 participants suggest that two doses of the vaccine have an efficacy of 91.6 percent against symptomatic Covid-19. Furthermore, according to this report, no serious averse side effects were recorded in the test groups.
The results were also analysed by a pair of British scientists at Reading University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who concluded: “The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner-cutting, and an absence of transparency. But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”
The news will be welcomed by many senior officials in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the Health Ministry is expecting to receive several shipments of Sputnik V over the next two months. There is some urgency to this as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned the importation of UK- and US-made vaccines for ideological and financial reasons.
A Measure of Confidence After Weeks of Uncertainty
The Russian developers of the Sputnik-V vaccine, at the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, had long promised that their product was both safe and effective, but without making the test results publicly available, leading to heightened concerns.
In a press release in December, the Gamaleya Institute said the vaccine had an efficacy of 91.4 percent based on tests conducted on 18,000 people. “Sputnik-V vaccine has proven to be highly effective,” deputy center director Denis Logunov said at the time. “We will definitely share the results with the scientific community and will be happy to discuss them with all interested colleagues.”
Up until this afternoon, the media and the wider scientific community had no means of verifying these figures and IranWire’s own requests to see the documentation went unanswered. It is possible that governments like Iran’s, or individual government bodies like the Ministry of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, had had sight of the evidence behind the vaccine’s safety and efficacy before the wider public did today – although if it did, the Islamic Republic did not choose to share this with its people.
Vaccine Hesitancy Inside Russia
There are signs the Russian government has faced an uphill struggle to convince its own people to accept Sputnik V: something these results might help to rectify. In a recent Forbes article citing both the pro-Kremlin news outlet RT and polling done by Levada Center, people’s willingness to take the vaccine was estimated at around 40 percent. In the Levada Center survey, it was found that most people who declined to get the vaccine did so because they were either afraid of side effects or waiting for more information.
The Russian government is still not currently declaring how many of its own people have received the Sputnik V vaccine, despite claiming a roll-out is well underway. The independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta looked at the numbers from local and regional authorities and came to the conclusion that 1,028,591 people in Russia have by now been vaccinated against coronavirus – out of a population of 150 million. This means progress has been very slow in a country that ostensibly started vaccinating its citizens on December 5, long before most others.
Also notably, most of the respondents in the Levada Center survey stated that they were not against vaccines in general. This means that within Russia, citizens have had specific concerns about their own country’s vaccine.
Politics may be a factor influencing vaccine hesitancy in Russia, and may yet prove to be a factor in Iran. Russian people’s own faith in the Russian political system has suffered a blow in recent months, and indeed ever since the poisoning of prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny last August. Documentaries featuring Navalny have since alleged that FSB, the Russian intelligence service, was behind the attempt on his life. They also featured other revelations that have shaken confidence in the Russian political establishment, such as the claim that Putin is building a palace for himself near the Black Sea. The corruption and extravagance that featured in these broadcasts – and Navalny’s recent arrest and ongoing trial – have incensed tens of thousands of Russians, with many taking to the streets in protest.
What Were Iranian Doctors Told About the Vaccine?
Prior to the results’ publication, Iran was poised to receive a shipment of millions of doses of Sputnik V but without clear information on the product’s efficacy being presented to the public. This week IranWire spoke to doctors in Iran and confirmed that they, too, had not been given access to any supporting information barring the scant detail published online.
At the time of writing, no official has told the Iranian media anything about the efficacy of the vaccine. On January 26, Foreign Minister Zarif concluded the agreement in Moscow to buy the vaccine but the Health Ministry remained silent about it until January 28.
On that day, Iran’s Food and Drug Administration announced that it has issued an emergency permit for the use of the Russian vaccine: “At the 24th meeting of the Food and Drug Administration’s Legal Recognition Committee, a permit was issued for the emergency use of Sputnik V vaccine made by the company Gamaleya in Russia in the form of frozen solution in vials of one or five doses.”
“Vaccinations with Sputnik V vaccine conducted in a number of countries and also in Russia show that it is properly effective and safe,” said Kianoush Jahanpour, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, in defending the choice of the Russian vaccine. But no supporting information was offered.
And Payam Tabarsi, member of Iran’s CovIran-Barekat vaccine’s clinical trial team, had confirmed: “The Russian Sputnik vaccine has had good results and we are waiting for the results of its phase 3 clinical trial to be published. This vaccine is a vector-based vaccine, has resulted in a desirable immunity and the results of preliminary studies have been published by The Lancet.”