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[Clara Ferreira Marques] Russia can’t afford to trip up in the vaccine race

Moscow researchers say one of the country’s potential coronavirus vaccines has been proven safe in small-scale human trials and is ready for wider tests. It should be a modest win for a country that has sought for years to restore its Soviet-era reputation for cutting-edge science, and for President Vladimir Putin.

Yet on Thursday, Britain, the US and Canada accused Russia of hacking international research centers that are trying to develop a vaccine.

The Kremlin denies any involvement, while the head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund called the allegations an attempt to tarnish the Russian research effort. It’s still an accusation that jeopardizes a hoped-for inoculation boost for prestige. Old-school vaccine diplomacy might help. Even in the depths of the Cold War, Soviet and US doctors collaborated to battle polio, and later smallpox.

Russia is also not the only nation desperate to arrive at a solution fast and, preferably, first. Yet the pressure there is acute. Putin needs to lift his flagging popularity, despite a plebiscite that this month overwhelmingly approved constitutional changes that could keep him in power until 2036. The necessity has only increased with mass protests in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, after the arrest of the local governor last week.

The COVID-19 outbreak has been intense in Russia, which has the fourth-highest number of cases globally. Mortality rates have been remarkably low, but new cases are still coming in at a rate of well over 6,000 a day. The economy has taken a hit. Yet the vaccine push is just as much about winning back a status tarnished by years of underinvestment, a dramatic brain drain and allegations last year of plagiarism and other unethical practices that prompted hundreds of academic articles to be retracted.

Even before coronavirus, innovation and science were pillars of the $400 billion development plan Putin hopes will form his legacy. Unfortunately, time pressure and flag-waving don’t always produce the best results.

For now, what we know of Russia’s vaccine effort is encouraging. Sechenov University is testing a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, and preparing to discharge its last volunteers after the initial phase of the trial. It tracked an immune response and found the prototype to be safe. The military, which conducted a parallel trial, has made similar comments and released its own volunteers.

Russia is not as far along as AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford or Chinese researchers, but it has over a dozen promising vaccine candidates, and Gamaleya’s is among the front-runners, along with prototypes developed by the Vector Institute in Siberia, formerly the center of the Soviet biological weapons research.

There is still plenty we won’t know, though. Data from the first phase of the Gamaleya trial is not yet public and more testing will be required. The third and final phase, which tests the vaccine’s actual effectiveness with a larger cohort, would normally take six months to a year. It isn’t even clear whether Russia, no longer a major vaccine exporter, can manufacture enough.

Yet this hasn’t tempered enthusiasm in state-run media or acts of bravura such as researchers at Gamaleya who voluntarily injected themselves with the untested prototype. Practices such as state-owned Sberbank recruiting volunteers for the Gamaleya trial among its own employees by appealing to their patriotism are no less worrying. Or shortcuts elsewhere, as with a vague Moscow study that encouraged doctors to test the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. The hacking allegations make it all worse.

If Russia is to reap the diplomatic and political benefits of a homegrown vaccine, it needs such a victory to be credible, at home and abroad. Following international norms and collaborating would be a start. Indeed, Putin may have no choice -- large-scale trials may have to be carried out in countries where the infection rate is higher.

It still won’t come naturally to a nationalist Putin administration that has long struggled to reconcile aspirations for scientific glory with a determination to tighten control. The Kremlin has sought to oversee contacts with foreign researchers and a number of academics with overseas links have been accused of treason. Other governments will now be extra wary, too.

Yet history suggests it can be done successfully, with the United States and others. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine, who served as science envoy under US President Barack Obama and has written extensively on the issue, points particularly to the cooperation between US doctor Albert Sabin and Soviet virologist Mikhail Chumakov on the oral polio vaccine in the late 1950s. Relations then had thawed a little after the death of Josef Stalin, but they were still tense and competitive: Sputnik was launched in 1957. Both sides wanted to steal technological secrets.

Even so, a few years later, there was collaboration again when Soviet scientists pioneered a freeze-drying technique for the smallpox vaccine. Unfortunately, today the environment may be too toxic.

Clara Ferreira Marques
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. -- Ed.