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Russia says Sputnik Light is more effective at six months than Pfizer. Is it true?
Two weeks ago, researchers confirmed that protection from Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine does appear to drop off over time. Six months after injection, the jab still provides good protection against hospitalisation and death. But its efficacy against infection itself falls markedly.
This result isn’t unexpected, as the effects of many vaccines wane over time. For this reason, several countries have already started giving out booster shots to those vaccinated earlier in the year. But pro-Russian social media accounts have jumped on the study to claim the country’s Sputnik V jab is a superior alternative.
The official Sputnik V Twitter account is Exhibit A. Shortly after the Pfizer results were published in medical journal The Lancet, the account posted a tweet that claimed its “Sputnik Light” vaccine was a perfect follow-up shot because it offered even stronger protection after six months. If true, it would be an impressive result for the single-shot vaccine, which is simply the first dose of the country’s two-dose Sputnik V. But it’s so far unclear what evidence there is to back up the claim.
Although researchers from Russia’s Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, have published a number of studies on Sputnik V, some scientists have queried their results. Critics have pointed out that the raw data used in this research has not been made available for independent analysis.
At the start of October, however, a new peer-reviewed study was published by scientists in Argentina, where Sputnik V has been used since late last year. The team concluded that the first Sputnik V dose — equivalent to Sputnik Light — provided around 79 percent protection against infection in adults aged between 60 and 79. This is positive news for the vaccine, which has been met with scepticism over a perceived lack of transparency from Russia.
But before the study was released, news reports claimed that upcoming Argentinian research would show the vaccine’s efficacy would strengthen after six months. These stories, published in India and featured on the official Sputnik V website, appear to have misinterpreted an article from the Russian news agency TASS. This article made a slightly less impressive claim: that the vaccine’s strength increased over time and remained high at six months.
It’s not clear whether these reports referred to the newly-published study. But if so, it doesn’t support either claim. Although the study enrolled participants from December last year through to May, it only assessed the efficacy of the vaccine between 21 and 40 days after delivery of the first shot. Study authors were interested in what the optimal interval between vaccine doses might be, not when efficacy would start to wear off. They found that the shot was 87 percent effective against infection between 14 and 20 days after injection, falling to 78 percent at 35 days. The 79 percent figure quoted above is an average result for the whole time period assessed.
Data concerns are nothing new for Sputnik V. Just last month, the World Health Organisation paused its assessment of the vaccine over missing data. Previous reports from Reuters suggest similar concerns have delayed the European Medicines Agency’s assessment of the jab, but Russian officials have disputed this claim. Nonetheless, neither the WHO nor the EMA has yet endorsed the vaccine. Many scientists do believe the vaccine is likely safe and effective. But data issues continue to hamper its adoption.
It’s likely that the Sputnik V tweets are Russia’s latest efforts to market its vaccine abroad. Pro-Kremlin actors have been heavily promoting Sputnik V as an alternative to more expensive vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna to lower-income countries; often pushing false and misleading claims about the jabs to support this.
Without appropriate evidence, it’s impossible to know how accurate the Sputnik V account’s tweet is. And there’s a risk it may discourage members of the public from accepting a different vaccine. But experts have maintained throughout the pandemic that the best vaccine to have is the one you are offered. This is because delaying vaccination while waiting for an alternative brand will leave you unprotected against what is still a highly transmissible and dangerous disease.