‘No data as come out to show that’ Russia’s vaccine ‘is safe and effective’: virologist

On Tuesday, President Putin announced that Russia had approved the ‘world’s first’ coronavirus vaccine, although many in the heath community remain skeptical as the vaccine has yet to finish phase 3 trials. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, joins The Final Round panel to discuss the coronavirus vaccine race.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's turn to the news out of Russia this morning, though, because that really seemed to set the tone for the day. Regulators in Moscow becoming the first in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine before completing all the trials. President Vladimir Putin saying the vaccine, in his words, works effectively enough and has gone through all of the necessary tests.

I want to bring in Angela Rasmussen. She is a virologist at Columbia University. We've also got Anjalee Khemlani who's been covering this story for us. Dr. Rasmussen, let's start with that news that came out today. There is real concern here that Russia has been cutting corners, as we've seen the global race to this vaccine. How should we be processing the news that came out today?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: I think we need to be very careful in talking about this vaccine in Russia as though it's something that does in fact work. No data, as far as I'm aware, has come out to show that this vaccine is actually safe and effective. And trusting Vladimir Putin to accurately convey any data that has been collected is not something that I think most scientists would do.

I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they will release data from clinical trials that show that the vaccine does work. But as of now, we have no evidence that that's the case. And it's incredibly dangerous to roll out in mass immunize people with a vaccine that may not actually work.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, so certainly no data. The trial hasn't been completed. It's certainly need for caution here. But I'm curious how you think the market interpreted this, because there seems to be this thinking that, look, even if Russia doesn't, in fact, have a vaccine, things are moving along much quicker than expected globally.

How do you see that vaccine race shaping up right now? And how concerned are you about-- put the Russian news aside. But how concerned are you about this race and this pressure to accelerate things and what that means for how safe a vaccine actually is?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So I can't speak for Russia, because, again, we don't have any data about how they've actually conducted their trials. But here in the US, our vaccine progress has been moving along at a very accelerated rate. That said, there are still the same standards for safety and efficacy that are in place for the normal process of vaccine development.

The one piece of data we won't be able to get for these phase three clinical trials that have started for several of the vaccine candidates outside of Russia are really the long-term durability of the vaccine. But in the short term, that doesn't make much of a difference. There still will be the same size of phase three clinical trial that will allow us to evaluate safety and efficacy in the short term. And so that's very good in terms of our progress towards a vaccine.

But to your earlier point in terms of how the markets will react and in terms of really how the world is going to react, I think that people need to be very careful at managing their expectations, because even when a vaccine is approved after it's been found to meet these safety and efficacy standards, it's not going to be immediately available to everybody even in the US, much less the entire population of the world. So it will be a longer-term process to actually roll out these first-generation vaccine candidates that do meet the standards for approval.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr., it's Anjalee here. I know that one of the things that has been discussed is really the need for some of the poorer countries to have access to a vaccine. And that's where China and Russia do tend to play a role and could be playing a role when it comes to this push on both their vaccine fronts because there have been some questions, as well, when it comes to China's efforts. So I'm curious on your thoughts on that on, you know, as we wait for basically the developed West to roll out the vaccines to their populations what happens everywhere else.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: I mean, I think that's really important question. And this actually does argue for why we should have multiple vaccine candidates in the pipeline regardless of which country is developing them. So, for example, the Moderna vaccine that is being developed here and that is one of the frontrunners in the US vaccine race actually requires extreme cold for storage prior to use. It needs to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius, which is very, very cold. And many people don't have freezers that can store things at that temperature.

So in terms of rolling out to low and middle income countries that may not have intact cold chains, the development of multiple vaccines that will be distributed differently is really crucial to making sure that everybody can have access around the world.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And when we're talking about heat stable vaccines, I think that's one of the things that has been a question. We know that, you know, the newer technologies don't necessarily require that which is why there's so much enthusiasm. But the larger companies that do have the ability to scale up are relying on traditional vaccines that need refrigerating. So there is still that disconnect, right, on sort of what gets distributed.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Absolutely. And even the heat stable vaccines, for example, DNA vaccines, which are very heat stable, they require a special device to deliver them. So there's really issues with every single vaccine candidate, which is why one single vaccine technology or platform is not going to be the answer for the whole world.

AKIKO FUJITA: Dr. Angela Rasmussen, appreciate your time today. And thanks to Anjalee Khemlani as well.