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U.N. Secretary General: Russian Vaccine Plays ‘Important Role’ in Fighting COVID

A medical worker fills a syringe with Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Moscow, Russia, December 5, 2020. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

The Reuters interview in which U.N. secretary general António Guterres neglected to come out against Chinese authoritarian influence on the global stage wasn’t the only interview on his schedule Thursday. He also spoke with TASS, a Russian state media agency.

There’s been much said about China’s heavy-handed diplomacy to use global vaccine distribution to its national advantage. There’s another important angle here. The U.N.’s top official is now putting his thumb on the scales for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

An excerpt from the interview, which ran on Thursday:

– What’s your assessment of Russia’s contribution to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic?

– First of all, Russia is a founding member of the United Nations, a permanent member of the Security Council and these are central pillars of our multilateral system. It’s important to mention that.

Russia has developed a vaccine and has made this vaccine available. It made a very generous offer to the UN. The only condition that the UN has in relation to inoculations is that we can only use vaccines that are approved by the WHO. I know that there are contacts at the present moment between the Russian authorities and the WHO, I hope that those contacts will lead in the quickest possible way to an approval or recognition by the WHO.

We believe that the Russian vaccine can play a very important role in that battle that I’ve mentioned. We need to make sure that we have vaccines available and affordable to everybody everywhere.

– And if, or when, it is approved, can it be used by the United Nations?

– It can be used in many of the UN’s operations in some vulnerable areas of the world where we will need vaccines for our staff and for the population which we support in our peacekeeping operations in fragile countries. So, we hope that the Russian vaccine will play an important role in that regard.

The secretary general offered a respectable hedge with his comment on the requirement of WHO approval of the vaccine, but going on to state a belief in the “important role” of the Russian vaccine in any international response is highly questionable.

No doubt, Guterres, who has announced that he wants to keep his post, is trying to avoid an international incident in the lead up to the selection of the next secretary general in fall 2021, but he really ought to follow the science here.

Science magazine reported on the trials that led to the approval of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine in November. The approval process didn’t “pass the smell test” for two reasons, according to experts.

For one, the sample size of the trial was just too small, as it only included 20 coronavirus cases, which experts interviewed by Science noted is a cause for concern. The second problem that they noted has to do with one of the proteins that’s used in Sputnik, which has been linked to “catastrophe” in an HIV vaccine study 13 years ago. Participants in the study who received vaccinations with the protein in question were more susceptible to HIV than were members of the control group.

That said, Sputnik V has been administered to over a million people around the world, who have decided that the risk involved with the Russian vaccine is less than that of the disease itself. And an Indian drugmaker found it to be safe in mid-stage trials (though the study was conducted in partnership with Russia’s Direct Investment Fund).

The jury is nonetheless still out, and it’s certainly too early for someone like Guterres to lend his support to Moscow’s global public relations campaign to promote its unreliable, and potentially dangerous, vaccine.

Guterres and others shouldn’t listen to what Russian officials say — they should instead look at what they do. Business Insider today reported that a Russian diplomat posted in Estonia opted to receive the Pfizer shot (which has been maligned as unsafe and ineffective in Russia) over the Sputnik vaccine.

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