Why the Russian Sputnik V vaccine surprised us


These days we have attended the publication in the prestigious magazine The Lancet of the results of the clinical trial of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. These have caused a stir, since they position this vaccine as one of the most promising in the world. It took us by surprise. Here we will try to analyze why this event has been so unexpected in the western world.

The Russian vaccine Sputnik V, away from Spain as long as it is produced only outside the EU

The Russian vaccine Sputnik V, away from Spain as long as it is produced only outside the EU

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Peculiarities of Russian science

Today’s Russian science is heir to the Soviet one and has peculiar characteristics. In the Soviet Union, science was one of the most prestigious activities. Scientists were at the highest part of the social pyramid, they were highly respected, possessed certain privileges compared to other professions, and were characterized by their great vocation and patriotism.

As the historian tells us Nikolai Krementsov in his essential book “Stalinist Science”, The Soviet science that was forged during Stalinism was very focused on practical questions and functioned as a tool in the hands of the State, with large, highly hierarchical Centers and Institutes, financed and managed directly by the Government and controlled by the Communist Party.

In this environment, scientists did not need to worry about bureaucracies or publishing their results in international journals. In this way, the country had an intellectual elite made up of the best brains. They were people who dedicated all their efforts to building models, obtaining results and, in the biomedical sphere, to curing diseases. Publishing was secondary. Although much of this has changed since the Soviet Union dissolved, it is logical that there remain inertia and contrasts with the science of the rest of the world.

The problem is that our immune system also develops antibodies against adenoviruses themselves, so usually only one dose is administered and the effectiveness decreases. We already know that a second dose strengthens the immune response. Of this type, “single dose”, is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that will be approved soon.

To develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, Oxford University researchers came up with a chimpanzee adenovirus so that the human body does not attack the adenovirus. For this reason, this vaccine is given two doses.

Well, the researchers at the Gamaleya Institute had a different idea to be able to administer two doses of the vaccine: to use two different types of human adenovirus, one for each dose. The work is twofold, but two doses can be administered and, furthermore, the adenovirus will work better in humans and not in chimpanzees. And, as has happened, the efficacy is very high, superior to any of the other adenovirus vaccines we have so far.

The reason for mistrust

So why have we all been suspicious of the Russian vaccine so far? Simply because we lacked information. Only when the data from phase III clinical trials were published have we had all the information in our hands. This information, accessible for review and discussion, marks the starting gun for requesting authorization from regulatory bodies and starting the vaccination campaign. Nevertheless, in Russia and in other countries They have been administering the Sputnik V vaccine for months. That is precisely why the West was mistrustful: how can you vaccinate without knowing if the vaccine is safe and effective? And, furthermore, we were unaware that vaccines with similar characteristics against Ebola and MERS had previously been developed in Russia.

As we already alerted in a previous articleIt seems that we have been suspicious and that the problem with the Russian vaccine was a lack of information, and not some intrinsic failure of the vaccine. Justified skepticism goes out the door if good science comes in through the window.

This episode will undoubtedly serve to restore respect for a science that once served as an example to the world with the space race, and that is on the way to recovering its international prestige with this vaccine so appropriately named for the occasion.

The Conversation

Matilde Cañelles López is a scientific researcher at the Institute of Philosophy (IFS) of the CSIC and María Mercedes Jiménez Sarmiento is a systems biochemist of the bacterial division at the Margarita Salas Biological Research Center of the CSIC and scientific communicator

East Article was originally published in The Conversation. You can read it here.

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