MOSCOW -- Health scientists and medical analysts around the world have sounded the alarm about President Vladimir Putin's claims that Russia has produced the first coronavirus vaccine, with many suggesting the unproven, untested drug may be in fact more dangerous than COVID-19.
Putin Tuesday (August 11) said the vaccine was safe and that one of his own daughters had received the inoculation, dubbed "Sputnik V" after the pioneering 1950s Soviet satellite.
Specialists, included those from the World Health Organisation (WHO), said they were concerned that not enough was known about Russia's research.
One of the few things known about the alleged vaccine was that it was tested on a few dozen "volunteers" from the Russian military.
"The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective could exacerbate our current problems insurmountably," said Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London.
"Patient safety is of the highest priority," a German Health Ministry spokeswoman said. "There is no known data on the quality, efficacy and safety of the Russian vaccine."
The state-run Gamaleya institute, which produced the vaccine, came under fire after researchers and its director injected themselves with the prototype several months ago, with specialists criticising the move as an unorthodox and rushed way of starting human trials.
Observers have previously raised concerns that Russian researchers cut corners and came under pressure from authorities to deliver.
"Claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing, I think, is problematic, at best," said US infectious disease scholar Anthony Fauci.
"It's important that we provide safe, effective vaccines and that the data be transparent... This is not a race to be first," US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters Wednesday (August 12) during a conference call.
"The data from the initial trials in Russia have not been disclosed; it's not transparent," he added.
"I have little faith in the pronouncements of the Russian authorities that they already have a vaccine ready for use," said Asel Saliyeva, a doctor who specialises in COVID-19 at a hospital in Kazakhstan.
"During the testing process, a vaccine can seem safe early on, but the consequences can appear much later. You can't risk the health of millions, even when the risk seems justified," said Saliyeva.
"The creators of the Russian vaccine themselves don't know how long the vaccine works because they didn't conduct any long-term, large-scale clinical studies," warned Bolot Kalmyrzayev, a molecular geneticist at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan.
Without more testing, there will be many "surprises" in the future, he added.
"The Russian vaccine shouldn't be a choice even if it were marketed earlier because there is no guarantee of its safety," said Dr. Javid Cheema, a member of the Pakistani government's COVID-19 cell in Islamabad.
"We fear that if vaccination was started without proper trials, it could cause more harm to the people than benefit," said Muhammad Rafiq, a vaccination specialist at the National Institute of Health in Islamabad.
Motivations to be first
There are a number of reasons why the Kremlin would risk pushing out a dangerous or ineffective "vaccine" in an effort to be first.
The popularity that Putin has long enjoyed among Russians has waned significantly in the past two years, as he faces a resolute and growing level of dissatisfaction among his once loyal political base.
His standing plummeted after the Kremlin antagonised many Russians by shoving through an increase in the retirement age in 2018 and then by preventing various opposition candidates from running for the Moscow City Council in 2019.
Mass protests and arrests have been commonplace in Moscow and other parts of the country, with unprecedented mass protests currently occurring in the eastern Russian provinces.
Russian citizens are also upset at five straight years of declining incomes and a crumbling economy. Just on Tuesday (August 11), the Russian state statistics agency said the country's economy contracted by 8.5% in the second quarter.
As such, observers say that claims to have the much coveted vaccine represent Putin's latest political stunt.
The Russian regime controlled by Putin also appears poised to make a massive profit from the untested vaccine.
Kirill Dmitriyev, who heads the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said industrial production was expected from September and that 20 countries had made "preliminary applications for over one billion doses" of the vaccine.
Along with foreign partners, Russia is ready to manufacture 500 million doses of vaccine per year in five countries, he said.
Attacks against Western healthcare systems
Putin's claims come less than a month after Britain, the United States and Canada accused a hacking group linked to Russian intelligence of attempting to steal COVID-19 vaccine development from research institutes around the world.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was "absolutely confident" in the allegations, branding the behaviour "outrageous and reprehensible".
The Chinese regime has also been caught trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research, leading the United States in July to brand China as a safe haven for cyber criminals.
For months, the Russian regime has been actively spreading disinformation regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic, which an investigation concluded is part of Putin's long-term campaign to discredit Western healthcare systems and American scientists.
Russia's disinformation campaign about the deadly virus is endangering lives worldwide and is meant to worsen the crisis in the West by undermining trust in healthcare systems, according to a European Union study in March.
[Kanat Altynbayev from Almaty and Ashfaq Yusufzai from Peshawar contributed to this report]