There’s no way around it. This global pandemic has been a year-long gut punch to everyone on this planet. Some nations have taken those punches better than others, but even those who’ve handled it well still contend with its effects. It’s frustrating and agonizing. Nobody denies that at this point.
We also accept that there’s no way to definitely end this pandemic without a vaccine. That’s why many people, including myself, follow any news about potential vaccines closely. It’s easy to get excited when we hear about the progress some organizations have made. It’s even tempting to think that we’re close.
Avoid that temptation because, if you take the bigger picture into account, we’re not that close. It’s very likely that we’ll be without a proven vaccine for the rest of the year. It’s for that same reason that you should take Russia’s announcement of a successful vaccine, which it dubbed Sputnik V, with immense skepticism.
I’m not just saying that as an American or as someone who has mixed opinions about Russia and its autocratic government. Believe me, I’d love it if this vaccine were as effective as Russian claimed. I’d gladly celebrate it and commend Vladimir Putin’s knack for “motivating” development. That’s how much I want this pandemic to end.
However, there are some very good reasons to be cautious about this claim. Forget, for a second, that it’s coming from Russia, a country with an extensive history of large-scale disinformation campaigns. Just consider this simple scenario.
Imagine if someone walked up to you and claimed they had an app on their phone that could predict lotto numbers. You’re both intrigued and impressed. You ask for proof that it works. That person refuses to give it. They also ask for information about the program. They only give you the barest of basics, which you can’t verify.
Would you be willing to accept that this program works?
Moreover, would you be willing to accept it if doing so meant risking your life and that of your entire community?
Chances are most reasonable people would be skeptical and for good reason. That’s exactly why you should be skeptical of Russia’s claim. Russia has not released any scientific data on its vaccine testing and has not conducted the kind of large-scale test that most vaccines require to determine their safety and effectiveness. Without that kind of test, it’s impossible to tell whether the vaccine is effective.
That’s why practically every major health organization on the planet isn’t celebrating just yet. They’re not completely discounting it, though. There is a genuine interest in reviewing the data. That’s critical since this isn’t some fancy space probe. This is something we’re injecting into living human beings. We need to make sure it’s safe. Otherwise, we could end up causing more suffering than we prevent.
Beyond just causing a spike in cases, due largely to a false sense of security, an ineffective vaccine could undermine the public’s faith in public health. Vaccines have already been subject to all sorts of negative scrutiny in recent years. If this vaccine proves less-than-effective, it could set public health back years and lots of people will die because of that.
That’s what’s at stake here. There’s a time to rush something and a time to take bold risks. This isn’t one of them. Public health and medical science is not something we can rush. This isn’t like going to the moon or breaking the sound barrier. Those efforts required risks, but that risk was taken on by a few willing and brave individuals.
When it comes to medicine, the risks go beyond the test subjects. We cannot and should not take big risks when millions of lives are potentially at stake. This virus has already killed way too many people. Buying into a vaccine before we know for sure it’s effective could ultimately kill even more.
I’ll say it again. I want this pandemic to end as much as anyone. I want this vaccine to work as well as the Russian government claims. However, I’m not prepared to roll up my sleeve until those claims are verified. I encourage others to exercise similar caution.