The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Russians and the Chinese are touting their vaccines. Should we trust them?

A doctor administers the Russian vaccine Sputnik V last week to a patient at Bacs-Kiskun County Training Hospital in Kecskemet, Hungary. (Sandor Ujvari/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin personally announced in August that Russia had approved the world’s first covid-19 vaccine, many reacted with skepticism and concern. Russian scientists hadn’t conducted Phase 3 trials, normally used before deploying a vaccine. Could the vaccine be trusted?

The vaccine’s name, Sputnik V — harking back to a Soviet triumph against the West in the Cold War — suggested the Kremlin viewed the project not as a purely scientific public health endeavor, but as one with enormous geopolitical potential. Many remained suspicious. Even most Russians said they would not take the shot.

In November, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its vaccine was 90 percent effective. Two days later, Russia declared that its own vaccine had tested as 92 percent effective. Skeptics narrowed their eyes in disbelief.

This month, though, the prestigious scientific journal the Lancet published an article that seemed to confirm the Russian claims, concluding that Sputnik V appeared “safe and effective.” The study found its efficacy rate to be more than 90 percent, comparable to the best vaccines developed in the West.

The results of studies by Russian or Chinese scientists might turn out to be completely accurate — and we hope they are. Right now the world needs as many effective vaccines as we can get. But data emerging from tightly controlled authoritarian regimes deserves far more skepticism than we have seen so far.

The Lancet’s seal of approval has given a huge boost to the Russian vaccine effort, which is already selling millions of doses in dozens of countries around the world, a massive soft-power boost to Russia’s geopolitical clout.

The global vaccine race is not only about public health. The U.S. State Department accuses Russian state media of launching a coordinated disinformation campaign in Latin America to cast doubt on Western vaccines as dangerous and inferior to the Russian one. A disinformation researcher at a nonprofit organization described the campaign as “one of the largest operations we’ve seen.” Latin American countries, and others around the world, have rushed to buy Sputnik V, along with Chinese vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm.

Even Hungary, a member of the European Union, has already started inoculating its citizens with the Russian vaccine, and is considering using the Chinese ones as well. (The E.U.’s European Medicines Agency has not approved Sputnik V for use.)

Carlos del Rio, a leading researcher at Emory University who participated in development of the Moderna vaccine, told me that we should take Russian and Chinese results “with two grains of salt.” Del Rio, like other scientists, says he would like to see more data, adding that he’s sure the Lancet reviewed more material as part of the peer-review process. But the questions run deeper than data analysis.

Peer-review requires scientists to examine data provided by researchers and put it through rigorous paces. But how do we know the data provided are legitimate?

When it comes to the veracity of data, the system relies mostly on trust. But there’s a history of peer-reviewed journals that have been cheated before by people falsifying or manipulating data. Research of much less consequence than today’s vaccine trials turned out to be phony. In 2018, a Harvard-affiliated heart researcher was found to have fabricated or falsified data in 31 published studies. Scientists have long worried about the problem of faked or massaged data.

That doesn’t even take into account the immense pressure that can be brought to bear by authoritarian regimes aiming to expand their global influence.

Tellingly, Russians remain skeptical of the vaccine even as much of the rest of the world seems to welcome it.

It’s worth remembering that Putin has gone to extraordinary and sinister lengths to achieve his political aims in the past. Should we worry that several doctors working in Russia’s early response to the pandemic, who had criticized the system, have reportedly “jumped” out of windows to their deaths — a fate also experienced by journalists and other critics of the system?

We have also seen the Chinese Communist Party apply considerable effort to suppressing news about the pandemic and stonewall further investigation of the virus’s origins by international teams.

If ever there was a time to exercise skepticism about the research emerging from such regimes, rather than allowing the warmth of a scientific journal to evaporate all questions, it is now.

All vaccine developers have a lot at stake; all research should be scrutinized. But del Rio notes a major advantage of vaccines developed in open, democratic societies: the independence enjoyed by researchers and regulators. He notes that the Food and Drug Administration rejected pressure from President Trump to move faster on approving vaccines. “What you want is independence — independent investigators, independent companies, independent regulators,” says del Rio. “Checks and balances are good to have.”

Del Rio predicts that Russia will never subject its vaccine to the approval process from U.S. or E.U. regulators. As for the Chinese vaccines, he’s even more skeptical about those.

Skeptical or not, the world desperately needs billions of doses of vaccine to push back the virus. As the Russian and Chinese vaccines are rolled out, independent Phase 4 studies should double-check the reliability of earlier research, following up on those who have received doses and comparing their outcomes to those who have not or who have received other vaccines. As someone once urged during the Cold War: Trust, but also verify.

Read more:

Dalibor Rohac: Europe is failing on vaccines. Help from the U.S. could bring the two back together.

Karen Attiah: Wealthy nations are gobbling up vaccines. This moral failure will come back to haunt us.

The Post’s View: Rich countries’ ‘me first’ vaccine hoarding is leaving behind low-income nations

Fareed Zakaria: The pandemic will not end unless every country gets the vaccine

Justin Trudeau, Sahle-Work Zewde, Moon Jae-in, Jacinda Ardern, Cyril Ramaphosa, Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón, Stefan Lofven and Elyes Fakhfakh: The international community must guarantee equal global access to a covid-19 vaccine

Letter to the Editor: We shouldn’t care who wins the vaccine ‘race’

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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