MOSCOW — Their friends and relatives called them "test bunnies" and warned they risked horrible health problems from Russia's entry into the vaccine race.

But a group of Russians who dived in early as volunteers in trials of Russia's Sputnik V have emerged as amateur researchers before the official results of full Phase 3 data, still months away even though Russian officials on Tuesday asserted the vaccine was 95 percent effective.

Instead, they have set themselves up in an online community — and, like members of a nerdy high school science team, they are doing their own explorations and analyses.

Nearly 1,500 people swap messages, answer questions and share antibody results and other health updates in an unofficial Telegram group that calls itself “Covid Vaccine Trial Volunteers.”

It’s one of the quirkiest corners in the global race for a vaccine, with Sputnik V among other formulas from labs in the United States, China and Europe.

The online group welcomes newcomers desperate to get into the vaccine trial, sending links to the best places for swift acceptance. Members commiserate with disappointed participants who seem to have gotten the trial’s placebo shots. They plot graphs of results and symptoms and sling around technical information about antibodies and T cells.

A few are experts, with a background in biochemistry or data research, but most are ordinary folk, as Russia’s new cases reach records of around 24,000 a day.

Russia’s government has not commented publicly on the Web salon. But the chatter should seem familiar. Like Russian officials, almost all of posts in the Telegram group believe Sputnik V is effective.

“The satellite, d---, flies and beeps!” posted Dmitry Kulish, convinced of the power of the vaccine named after Russia’s first Cold War satellite.

Kulish, a biochemist and professor at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a private research institute in Moscow, took part in the trial because it was the only way to get the vaccine.

“Long story short: I got two shots and two days ago I got my antibody level and it’s really high so I am so happy about it,” he said in an interview.

According to Russian investigative website Proekt, members of Russia’s elite, including tycoons and officials, were lining up to be secretly given Sputnik V shots even before it was registered in August. Russian officials have denied that elite Russians got early insider access.

Russian reluctance

Alexander Samsonov decided to join the vaccine trial after his grandmother died of covid-19 and friends contracted the virus. (The Washington Post)

Many other Russians, however, remain skeptical of vaccination in general: 59 percent of Russians would not take a coronavirus vaccine, according to October polling by the Levada Center. The polling does not reflect the reasons for skepticism. But, as in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, the anti-vaccine lobby has taken hold in Russia in some quarters — as have conspiracy theories suggesting that the novel coronavirus does not exist.

“As for the efficacy of the Russian vaccine or any other vaccine, I don’t think anyone knows. Only time will tell,” said trial volunteer Alexander Samsonov, 39, a member of the Telegram group who claimed he got a strong antibody boost based on the Italian firm DiaSorin’s Liaison test, taken at a Moscow testing center.

Samsonov quit his public relations job in the summer because his boss insisted that employees return to office-based work, where few bothered with protection measures like masks and gloves.

He eschewed his usual round of concerts, walks in the park, exhibitions and coffee-shop meetings with journalists. He stayed home for month after month, constantly glued to his computer, working freelance.

“I was stressed. I stayed home all the time,” he said. “You sit down all day and you put on weight.”

Samsonov decided to join the vaccine trial after his 92-year-old grandmother died of covid-19 and friends contracted the virus.

“They told me terrible things. Some got diabetes. Some got blood clots. And some had problems with their lungs,” he said.

But some colleagues and friends also poked fun at Samsonov’s protection measures, including masks and gloves. When he volunteered for the trial, they said he would be sorry.

“They told me — because the vaccine has not been tested to the very end, and because the vaccination thing is political — I would have health problems,” he said. “I would never have kids and I would develop various diseases because of this vaccine.”

He described the vaccine, even still experimental, as helping lift his mood like the curtain rising on a premiere. He found a new job in public relations.

“I feel much calmer. I feel like I can get out of self-isolation now,” he said. “I can’t live in isolation until the summer of 2021.”

Medical 'Kalashnikov'

As global competition heats up, Russia is targeting markets in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. President Vladimir Putin pushes the vaccine in every conversation he has with any world leader — jostling with rivals that include British-Swedish giant AstraZeneca in alliance with Oxford University, and U.S.-based Moderna and Pfizer, the latter of which is collaborating with Germany’s BioNTech.

Russia’s claims that Sputnik V is 95 percent effective are similar to results reported by Moderna and by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Russia’s stance — in the words of loyal state TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov — is to pooh-pooh the West’s vaccines as expensive and temperamental products that must be kept at very low temperatures. Sputnik V is freeze-dried and more easily stored and transported. Kiselyov compared it to one of the Soviet Union’s most famous exports.

“Sputnik V is like a Kalashnikov, simple and reliable,” he said on the “Vesti Nedeli” television program earlier this month. “Just like any frozen product, Pfizer is likely to suffer logistical problems.”

Vladimir Rusetsky, 36, and his wife, Yelena, both IT specialists, started the Telegram group to share information and were surprised to see how fast it grew.

They flew 1,670 miles from their home in Omsk to Moscow — twice — to join the trial and take the two sets of shots. They were afraid of infecting their parents.

“When you have older relatives, it’s scary,” Rusetsky said.

Antibody tests after the vaccine showed their levels were high, he said.

He hopes that the group will persuade skeptics, including friends and family, to consider getting the shot when it is widely available early next year.

“My wife’s daughter, who lives in America, called us test rabbits. Now she sees that we have antibodies and her attitude has changed,” Rusetsky said. The couple still follow the rules on masks and gloves, mainly to set an example to others.

“Of course I have this feeling of relief,” he said. “Now I know my relatives will be safe. I will not pass on the disease to them and that calms me down a lot.”

Max Popov, a Canadian citizen in the Telegram vaccine community and a related Facebook group, said there was no reason to fear Russia’s vaccine. But he and his Russian wife, Natalia Khristyukova, had no antibodies after their clinical trial shots.

“Based on that, I figured that both my wife and I are in the placebo group, unfortunately,” said Popov, who manufactures and installs television equipment in Russia.

Rusetsky is sure he got the vaccine, not the placebo. He called it “life-changing.”

“And if those people who did not want to be vaccinated look at me and change their minds and will get a vaccine,” he said, “that would just be great.”