MOSCOW — A nurse, needle in hand, asked me brusquely if I was ready. I said yes. A quick injection followed, then instructions to wait a half-hour in the hospital corridor for the possibility of anaphylactic shock, which thankfully never came.
Last Monday, I put aside my misgivings and got the first dose of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, called Sputnik V, made at a factory outside of Moscow from genetically modified human cold viruses.
Like so much else in Russia, the rollout of Sputnik V was entangled in politics and propaganda, with President Vladimir V. Putin announcing its approval for use even before late-stage trials began. For months, it was pilloried by Western scientists. Like many Russian citizens distrustful of the new vaccine, saying they would wait to see how things turned out before getting it themselves, I had my doubts.
Consider how the rollout went: With the approval back in August, Russian health officials were quick to assert they had won the vaccine race, just as the country had won the space race decades ago with the Sputnik satellite. In fact, at the time, several other vaccine candidates were further along in testing.
A series of misleading announcements followed. The vaccine’s backers claimed a national inoculation campaign would begin in September, then in November; it ramped up only last month, no earlier than the kickoff of vaccinations in Britain and the United States.
Then came suspicions aired in foreign reporting that the Russian government, already eyed warily in medical matters over accusations of poisoning dissidents and doping Olympic athletes, was now cooking the books on vaccine trial results, perhaps for reasons of national pride or marketing.
As if to outperform the perceived competition, when Pfizer and the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech reported trial results showing more than 91 percent efficacy for their candidate vaccine, the Kremlin-connected financial company backing Sputnik V asserted its trials showed 92 percent efficacy.
When Moderna then reported 94.1 percent efficacy, the Russian company again claimed superiority, saying it achieved 95 percent. Officials later conceded, when the late-stage trials were complete, that Sputnik V’s results showed an efficacy rate of 91.4 percent.
But from the perspective of a recipient, did that matter? The final reported result still offers a nine out of 10 chance of avoiding Covid-19, once the vaccine has taken effect. Skepticism from Western experts focused mostly on the questionable early approval, not the vaccine’s design, which is similar to the one produced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
While public apprehension hasn’t completely subsided, and the developers have yet to release detailed data on adverse events observed during the trials, the Russian government has now vaccinated about one million of its own citizens and exported Sputnik V to Belarus, Argentina and other countries, suggesting that any harmful side effects overlooked during trials would by now have come to light.
In the end, the politicized rollout only served to obscure the essentially good trial results — what appears to be a bona fide accomplishment for Russian scientists continuing a long and storied practice of vaccine development.
In the Soviet period, tamping down infectious diseases was a public health priority at home and exporting vaccines to the developing world an element of Cold War diplomacy.
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
The Soviet Union and United States cooperated in eliminating smallpox through vaccination. Virology was central to the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, which continued in secrecy long after a 1975 treaty banned the weapons.
In 1959, a husband-and-wife team of Soviet scientists successfully tested the first live polio virus vaccine using their own children as the first trial subjects. That followed a Russian tradition of medical researchers testing potentially harmful products on themselves first.
Last spring, the chief developer of Sputnik V, Aleksandr L. Gintsburg, followed in this custom by injecting himself even before the announcement that animal trials had wrapped up.
Russian promoters have compared the vaccine to the Kalashnikov rifle, simple and effective in its operation. I was even lucky in avoiding some of the common side effects of Sputnik V, such as a raging headache or a fever.
With many of my fears alleviated, another reason I chose to get inoculated with a product of Russian genetic engineering was more basic: It was available. Russian clinics have not been dogged by the lines or logistical snafus reported at vaccination sites in the United States and other countries.
In Moscow, the best days of winter come in early January as the country slumbers through a weeklong holiday, the traffic thins and the city’s bustling chaos gives way to a quiet, snowy beauty. Vaccination sites were also lightly attended.
Russia’s vaccination campaign began with medical workers and teachers and then expanded. It is now open to people older than 60 or with underlying conditions that render them vulnerable to more severe disease, and to people working in a widening list of professions deemed to be at high risk: bank tellers, city government workers, professional athletes, bus drivers, police officers and, conveniently for me, journalists. It’s unclear whether Russia’s production capacity is sufficient to meet demand long term.
For now, with so many Russians deeply skeptical of their medical system and the vaccine, there is no great clamor for the shot. The first site I visited, while reporting back in December, closed early because so few people had turned up.
In the capital, the vaccine has, paradoxically, appealed to educated people, a group that is traditionally a hotbed of political opposition to Mr. Putin, the chief promoter of the vaccine. When it came to a decision about health, many rolled up their sleeves.
“I got the second component of Sputnik in my shoulder,” Andrei Desnitsky, an academic at the Institute of Oriental Studies who has been chronicling his experience with vaccination, wrote on Facebook.
To followers posting comments, he said, “hysterics in the style of ‘You sold out, you bastard, to the bloody regime’ and ‘They take us all for idiots,’ will be deleted.”
Like Mr. Desnitsky, I was willing to take my chances. At Polyclinic No. 5 on a snowy morning, I filled out a form asking about chronic diseases, blood disorders or heart ailments. I showed my press pass as proof of my profession. A doctor asked a few questions about allergies. I waited an hour or so for my turn in a beige-tiled hospital corridor.
Sitting nearby was Galina Chupyl, a 65-year-old municipal worker. What did she think of getting vaccinated?
“I am happy, of course,” she said. “Nobody wants to get sick.”