Russia has said that its coronavirus vaccine has more than 95% efficacy according to new preliminary data, giving it a success rate comparable to vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
Russian officials also claimed their vaccine had greater efficacy than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because of Russia’s proprietary technology, which it offered to share with British scientists.
“Sputnik shows very high effectiveness, higher than 95%,” Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said during a briefing on Tuesday. “This is indisputably positive news not just for Russia, but for the entire world, for all countries.”
The preliminary results were released as competition heats up among vaccine developers to mass produce a coronavirus jab and help bring the pandemic to an end.
Not everyone is convinced by Russia’s official data, however, and suspicions have been increased by the fact Russian authorities speedily licensed the vaccine before the results of stage three trials were available, as well as reports of state employees being coerced into taking part in trials.
While numerous countries have expressed an interest in studying or purchasing the vaccine, few western countries have signed up. Among EU nations, only Hungary has expressed a serious interest, causing friction with other members of the bloc. A spokesman for the European commission said the body “does not have any data regarding this Russian vaccine,” Interfax reported on Tuesday evening.
The Sputnik results were computed after 42 days of a study in which 19,000 participants received two doses of the vaccine and 21,000 participants received a single dose. Earlier data showed that the vaccine had an approximately 91.4% efficacy 28 days after participants received the first dose.
Top officials, including Dmitriev, claim to have taken the vaccine and have said they feel fine. The Kremlin said on Monday that Vladimir Putin had not had a coronavirus jab, with a spokesman saying that the president could not take part in a medical trial.
“After all, the president can’t use an uncertified vaccine,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.
A successful vaccine is Russia’s key to emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 2.15 million people in the country and is currently spreading at a record pace. Vladimir Putin and many regional heads have been hesitant to introduce a broad lockdown similar to earlier this year out of concern for the harm to the country’s economy.
The Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin said that the country’s priority was for Russians to have access to the vaccine. “Every person in every region in the country should have the possibility to be vaccinated against the disease,” he said, adding that: “Nobody is going to be forced to do this.”
But the vaccine’s development at Russia’s Gamaleya research institute has also been driven by the economic allure of selling it abroad and national pride in the country’s scientific prowess that has earned comparisons to the cold war space race, when the Soviet Unions’s Sputnik 1 was the world’s first satellite to be launched into orbit around the Earth.
Dmitriev, who has been tasked with selling the vaccine abroad, said that a dose of the vaccine would cost no more than $10 (£7.50) on international markets – about half the cost of the Pfizer vaccine.
He predicted that more than 1bn doses would be produced in the next year in countries including India, Korea, Brazil, China, and Hungary, the first, and so far the only, EU country to express a serious interest in the Russian vaccine.
Ten sample batches arrived in Budapest on a temperature-controlled flight last week.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who is currently in dispute with other European leaders over plans to link EU budget funds to rule of law criteria, has been criticised in the past for his friendly relations with the Kremlin.
The Hungarian government said it has made preliminary orders for a number of different vaccines, including those manufactured in Russia and China, and Orbán has promised that individual citizens would be able to choose which vaccine to take.
“As vaccination will not be compulsory, if there are several vaccines, everyone will be able to decide for themselves which one they trust most: whether they prefer the business-centred approach of a US corporation, the state-developed Russian vaccine, or the Chinese one,” he said.
Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said Hungarian scientists were now trialling the Russian vaccine in laboratories, “so that they’ll be able to make a well-based decision on its possible usability and licensing”.
However, under EU rules, the vaccine must be authorised by the European Medicines Agency before any member states can approve it for general use.
“The question arises whether a member state would want to administer to its citizens a vaccine that has not been reviewed by the EMA,” a European commission spokesperson told Reuters last week, adding that using an untested vaccine could have the result of lowering confidence in vaccines in general among the population.
The Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros, who has been the target of a long-running smear campaign by the Orbán government, last week wrote in an article that Hungary’s interest in the Russian vaccine “deserves to be investigated” given previous allegations of corruption against the Hungarian prime minister’s inner circle. Soros pointed out that Hungary appears to have paid up to 50 times more for ventilators than Germany, leading some to question the motives behind the deals.