Sputnik V

Sputnik V (yes, named after the first satellite) vaccine…

This vaccine (also called Gam-COVID-Vac) was developed by Russia’s Ministry of Health (Gamaleya Research Institute). The vaccine is 2 doses, 3 weeks apart. It’s an adenovirus (like AstraZeneca) that needs to be stored in a freezer. The innovative aspect of this vaccine is that scientists combined two adenoviruses instead of using just one. By doing this, they hope the virus can’t mutate to outsmart the vaccine.

Here’s the vaccine’s timeline:

June: Phase I/II trials launched

Aug 11: Putin announced they conditionally approved the vaccine. Other countries do this too. The motive was political, however, as it’s now considered the “first registered vaccine” in the pandemic. Which, as you can imagine, is controversial.

Sept 4: Results from Phase I/II were published in the Lancet (a very well-respected journal). In short, among 76 people aged 18-60, the vaccine was safe with most adverse events being mild and no serious adverse events reported. The vaccine also yielded antibodies.

Oct 17: Phase III began. Participants were recruited in Belarus, UAE, Venezuela, and India.

Nov 11: Russia sparked significant controversy (again) because, after releasing partial Phase III data, they began offering the vaccine. The partial data was based on 20 cases of COVID19, where scientists estimated a vaccine efficacy of 92%.

Dec 14: Phase III trial reached 22,714 participants (17,032 in the vaccine group and 5,682 in the placebo). After two months, 78 cases of COVID19 popped up (16 in the vaccine group and 62 in the placebo group). This equates to an efficacy rate of 91.4%. Out of the 78 COVID19 cases, 20 cases were severe and all were in the placebo group. Results have not been peer-reviewed yet.

Dec 29: Belarus and Argentina approved for emergency use.

An interesting development: Sputnik just reached a deal with AstraZeneca. The motivation is to try and increase AstraZeneca’s efficacy by combining the two vaccines. They are both adnoviruses, so this is possible to do. However, it has just never been done before. It’s unprecedented. Nonetheless, they need to start from the beginning (Phase I). AstraZeneca just registered for the trial.

My opinion: Look, I know this is a Russian vaccine. And, yes, they chose a really poor vaccine name. Their urgency to be label their vaccine the “first vaccine approved” was cause for concern. And approving a vaccine, before Phase III is complete, is also cause for concern. But, after reading the science, I see no reason to doubt the results. The Lancet results are solid. And the Phase III results are on par with what we have seen with the other vaccines. We are anxiously waiting the peer-reviewed science, but we also are for AstraZeneca. Also, Russia is paying for their poor initial decisions, as there is significant vaccine hesitancy within the country. But this is a global pandemic with literally billions of people infected and millions of people dying. It’s important that we give all vaccines, especially those that are easy to store and distribute to reach the most vulnerable of populations, a fighting chance. Even if they do come from Russia.

Love, YLE

Data Sources:


Phase III press release:


S. Africa Variant

I would like to preface by taking one step back… COVID19 is just not mutating very quickly. Overall, the virus circulating today looks relatively similar to the one that appeared in late 2019. This is because when COVID19 copies itself, it uses a proofreading system to catch errors. The COVID19 virus is proofreading itself much more than, say, the flu. The flu virus is constantly changing; we have to create a new flu vaccine every year. The measles virus is on the other side of the spectrum; it hasn’t changed since we discovered it in the 1960s. COVID19 is somewhere in between. This is important context to keep in mind.

With that said, the virus is changing. This is normal. The South Africa (SA) variant has recently grabbed the attention of scientists. Like the UK variant, the SA variant has a few mutations on the spike protein. It’s particularly important to look at these because the virus spike is the key to opening the doors on our organ’s cells (called ACE2 receptors). We want to know whether the virus is making smarter keys; just like we are making smarter locks (vaccines).

Of the several changes on the spike, there is one in particular (called E484K) we are looking closely at for two reasons:
1) E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition IN THE LAB. As such, the virus goes “incognito” and antibodies tend to not recognize it. It’s not clear yet whether the COVID19 E484K mutation tricks antibodies triggered by current vaccinations.
2) It’s a bit more difficult to track compared to the UK variant that’s easily detectable on a PCR test.

Thus far, the SA variant has spread to other countries including Austria, Norway, Japan, UK, Finland, Australia, Zambia, France, and most recently South Korea.

There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or that a vaccine wouldn’t protect us.

IF it did trick vaccines (and that’s a big if), vaccine formulas can be changed very quickly (in a matter of 4-6 weeks). Pfizer and Moderna are testing the SA variant now and will let us know soon.

My scientific opinion:

  1. It’s just too late for travel restrictions in regards to the SA variant. It’s already spread internationally.
  2. It’s way too early to panic about the SA variant or the COVID19 virus mutating overall. We haven’t really seen the full diversity of how the virus can mutate. This takes time. We just have to wait and see.

Love, YLE