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- Sarah Hurst is a 47-year-old freelance journalist based outside of London, where she lives with her mother and 12-year-old daughter.
- She was in AstraZeneca’s UK trial for the COVID-19 vaccine, and left last week in protest at the company’s announcement that they would work with Russia’s Sputnik vaccine developers.
- Hurst has been writing about Russia since 1990 and sees AstraZeneca’s collaboration with Russia as unethical and ill-advised, particularly due to the lack of transparency around Sputnik’s development.
- “I was devastated. I felt betrayed… and furious that instead of working to bring more of Putin’s killers to justice, some in the West apparently want to reward him,” writes Hurst.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When I heard the news that AstraZeneca was going to work with Russia’s Gamaleya Centre to test combinations of the Oxford coronavirus vaccine and the Sputnik V vaccine, I was devastated. I felt betrayed by a prestigious scientific team that was supposed to be winning over the vaccine skeptics. At my last trial appointment a few weeks ago, where I gave a blood sample, I had joked with the medical student who saw me about the Sputnik vaccine. Neither of us trusted it, and we wanted to develop a genuine one. I could not have imagined that AstraZeneca would participate in Vladimir Putin’s project.
I have been in the Oxford trial, a joint project with AstraZeneca to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, since early June. I’ve had two doses of either the vaccine or the placebo. I was very enthusiastic to help develop a safe and effective vaccine, gave several interviews to UK media outlets about my participation in the trial, and spoke positively about the vaccine on Times Radio and LBC radio.
But in response to the collaboration with the Russians, I have withdrawn from the trial.
AstraZeneca’s announcement undermines its efforts to develop trust in its new vaccine.
I am a journalist specializing in writing about Russia. Lately I’ve been writing quite a bit about the dubious rollout of the Sputnik V vaccine. Vladimir Putin’s regulators triumphantly approved use of the vaccine in Russia in August, before sufficient trial data had been produced. It was entirely a propaganda show to prove that Russia was ahead of the rest of the world. (Editor’s note: As reported by Business Insider, this vaccine was developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and financed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Russia’s sovereign wealth fund. Although the Russian government said in a press release that Sputnik V was 92% effective after the second dose, it has not yet released complete, peer-reviewed data from their phase 1 and 2 trials.)
I recently translated an article for the IranWire website by Ilya Klishin that said exactly that. “This is an informational painkiller for the soul,” he wrote. “Which fewer and fewer people believe. Even inside Russia. Because you can escape from reality for a while. But not forever.”
There is other evidence that Russians don’t trust their own vaccine.
Reuters has written about how state workers have been pressured to sign onto the vaccine trails and receive doses of Sputnik. The BBC Russian Service recently published an article saying that Russian scientists don’t think the state is providing enough data about the vaccine. With questionable speed, Russia has even moved forward with a second coronavirus vaccine, EpiVacCorona, and is also working on a vaccine to protect animals against the novel coronavirus.
Pro-Kremlin reporter Dmitri Smirnov commented wryly on Twitter on December 10 that “Operation Save the Vaccinations” was underway as officials scrambled to withdraw their advice that Russians would have to abstain from drinking alcohol for 56 days before and after the two doses of their vaccinations. This has now been reduced to “three days after each injection.”
It isn’t clear to anyone whether the advice to avoid drinking is medically sound. Russians were also told that they shouldn’t take hot baths after their vaccinations, which didn’t inspire confidence either. I consider this a prepared excuse the Kremlin could use if the vaccine didn’t work as hoped.
Putin is also using the vaccines in his international diplomacy, urging other countries to place orders for them.
Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez has said he will be the first person in his country to receive the Sputnik vaccination to demonstrate its safety. And now, AstraZeneca’s involvement lends Western legitimacy to an otherwise marginalized option.
Many of my friends and colleagues in the UK are afraid that there will be so much trade disruption when the Brexit transition period ends on January 1 that the government will accept any vaccine it can get its hands on. I certainly am.
When I called the Oxford trial hotline to inform the team that I would be withdrawing from the trial, the doctor who answered told me that the Sputnik vaccine would not be approved by the UK’s regulator, the MHRA. If that’s the case, then why is AstraZeneca involved at all?
I think they just see an opportunity to save money by perhaps giving people the Oxford vaccine after a dose of Sputnik. But I don’t really know what they’re up to. Did they not consider the bad publicity that would result, or the way they would be playing into Putin’s hands? (Editor’s note: As Business Insider previously reported, AstraZeneca said they hoped combining different COVID-19 vaccines “may be helpful to improved protection and/or to improve vaccine accessibility” as well as “improved immunity over a longer-period of time.” The RDIF’s CEO Kirril Dimitriev called the collaboration an “important step towards uniting efforts in the fight against the pandemic.”)
There are also the ethical issues of collaborating in any way with Putin’s murderous regime.
A mountain of evidence points has shown that Russia’s government is almost certainly responsible for the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London, the novichok attack on Salisbury that resulted in the death of a British woman, and the novichok poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Russia’s forces were tied to shooting down flight MH17 with a Buk missile in July 2014, killing 298 people of many nationalities, and some of the perpetrators are currently on trial in The Hague in absentia. A new joint report by Bellingcat and CNN has identified the FSB agents who tailed Navalny for years and poisoned him.
I am furious that instead of working to bring more of Putin’s killers to justice, some in the West apparently want to reward him.
Putin annexed Crimea and is tied to the killing thousands of Ukrainians in Donbass. He recently prompted amendments to the Russian constitution to allow himself to seek two more terms as president and stay in power until 2036 if reelected.
I knew that I would only be making a small contribution as one of thousands of participants in the Oxford vaccine trial, but every person makes a difference. Similarly, my withdrawal from the trial may do very little to prevent Western companies from making the mistake time and time again to trust Putin, but I cannot be associated in any way with such collaboration. I am very disappointed with AstraZeneca.
Sarah Hurst is a freelance journalist and trade consultant who has been writing about Russia since her first visit to the Soviet Union in 1990. Her Twitter accounts are @Life_Disrupted and @XSovietNews.