New Delhi: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that the Covid-19 vaccine developed in his country, called ‘Sputnik V’, is now registered for public use, has left many immunologists and virologists across the world concerned.
The experts say Russian scientists working on the vaccine have cut corners, tried it on themselves, ignored Phase 3 of the trials altogether, and are potentially risking lethal side-effects for millions in Russia and beyond.
However, those acquainted with the history of radical medical experiments in the Soviet Union and Russia are not surprised by the rapid, if murky, development of a Covid-19 vaccine — Soviet and Russian scientists have had a tradition of self-administering vaccines and even trying it on their own children. In fact, Putin stated one of his daughters had already received the Covid vaccine.
In modern times, Russian citizens have willingly volunteered for drug trials with negligible standards, some of which have resulted in serious side-effects.
Underpinning this Soviet/Russian openness towards radical medical experiments is the notion of egalitarian utopia and philosophies which can be traced back to the mid-19th century.
Tradition of self-experimentation
As early as April, Alexander Ginzburg and 100 of his colleagues injected themselves with a potential Covid-19 vaccine, even before the substance had been tested on monkeys. Ginzburg is a 68-year-old Moscow-based microbiologist and director of the state-run Gamaleya Institute, which is responsible for developing the vaccine.
The vaccine developed by Ginzburg involves “introducing genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 virus into a harmless carrier virus in order to trigger the human immune system to produce antibodies”.
Ginzburg isn’t too worried about the risks associated with injecting a substance that has not undergone sufficient trials. He and his colleagues claim that it has been months since they self-injected the first dose, and they all claim to be still healthy.
While this might seem like reckless scientific behaviour, Ginzburg’s ideas fall well within the Soviet medical tradition of self-experimentation. Russian researchers today are “drawing on a long history of vaccine research — and of researchers, unconcerned about being scoffed at as mad scientists, experimenting on themselves”, noted a report in The New York Times.
Though there have been many proponents of self-experimentation, married virologist couple Marina Voroshilova and Mikhail Chumakov became the symbol of the practice in the Soviet era.
In the 1950s, Chumakov was the founder of Russia’s polio research institute. Meanwhile, in the US, Dr Albert Sabin was developing a vaccine with live poliovirus, but the country’s health authorities were reluctant to allow him to conduct trials with a live virus, as a polio vaccine using inactivated viruses was already in use.
So in 1955, Sabin gave his “three strains of attenuated virus” to his Soviet contemporary, Chumakov. In 1959, Chumakov and Voroshilova took the vaccine themselves, but since it was intended for use in children, it needed to be tested on them. So the couple gave their three sons and several nieces and nephews sugar-cubes laced with weakened poliovirus.
“Their experiment enabled Dr Chumakov to persuade a senior Soviet official, Anastas Mikoyan, to proceed with wider trials, eventually leading to the mass production of an oral polio vaccine used around the world,” noted the NYT report.
All three of Chumakov and Voroshilova’s children grew up to be virologists and, decades later, still approve of their parents’ methods. One of them, Dr Peter Chumakov, said in an interview: “Somebody has to be the first. I was never angry. I think it was very good to have such a father, who is confident enough that what he is doing is right, and is sure he will not harm his children.”
The youngest son, Dr Konstantin Chumakov, agreed. “It was the right thing to do,” he remarked. “Now, there would be questions, like ‘Did you get permission from the ethics committee?’”
Self-experimentation is entrenched in the history of medical research, but unlike Russia, it has rapidly declined across the Western world.
Drug trials in modern Russia
It’s not just Russian scientists — the public too has shown it is enthusiastic about radical experiments.
In 2012, big pharmaceutical companies including Bayer, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer and Eli Lilly — started conducting their clinical trials in Russia, often under starkly unregulated settings. Thousands of Russians enrolled for these clinical trials.
It was a win-win situation for both — while pharma companies could save a lot of money by conducting clinical trials in Russia, bypassing severe ethical standards in European countries and the US, for citizens, it was a rare opportunity to get access to modern healthcare.
However, sometimes, these clinical trials led to unexpected results and side-effects.
“Once, an experimental antibiotic set off allergic reactions. Doctors stared in amazement at the students and migrant workers who volunteered to take it. It was like something from the cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’, when a character gets sick,” Dr Vera G. Belolipetskaya was quoted as saying by the NYT. “Red dots started appearing all over, right in front of my eyes. They appeared in just a few minutes.”
What led to this enthusiasm for radical experimentation
Soviet and modern Russian history is full of similar incidents involving both scientists and citizens embracing radical experiments, at the root of which lies a certain utopian philosophy.
Starting in the mid-19th century, many Russians began to follow the idea of conducting experiments that could potentially make them immortal. Teacher, librarian and philosopher Nikolai Fedorov wrote a treatise on how if humans focus all their energies, they could transcend time and death and move towards immortality. He had ideas of resurrecting all the dead, and is believed to be the father of Russian ‘technofuturism’.
“Aleksandr Bogdanov, a prominent early Bolshevik and science fiction writer, investigated the rejuvenating properties of blood transfusions in the 1920s, though he soon died after exchanging blood with a tubercular student,” wrote Sophie Pinkman in The Nation.
But Bogdanov didn’t just want immortality for individuals; he imagined a world where “all were granted an equal share of society’s collective health through blood exchanges”.
Over subsequent decades, there have been many heirs of Bogdanov’s philosophical doctrine, which has even found a foothold in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Russian Presidential Council funded an organisation called NeuroNet, which chases human enhancement instead of immortality; its founders “imagine connecting the entire human race using neurointerfaces, essentially linking brains directly”.
Such medical traditions, underpinned with concrete philosophical ideas, can often lead to a bizarre sense of Russian exceptionalism.
Many others fear this could also be used for purposes of political propaganda, and that Russia might be doing with its vaccine now what the Soviet Union did with the Sputnik satellite in 1957.