Russia, of course, is always around to play the villain. In a bombshell set of re-hashed revelations published on Monday, the tabloid alleges that Moscow’s flagship Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, wasn’t made in a lab by a team of world-leading scientists, but was actually inspired by secret documents nicked from a British research institute.
According to veteran snooper and Westminster character Harry Cole, “security services say they have proof one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spies swiped the vital data” behind AstraZeneca’s formula. Adding intrigue to the Cold War-era espionage story, British spooks apparently told Cole that “it is understood the data was stolen by a foreign agent in person.”
This isn’t the first time such allegations have been dusted off for a good airing. Last year, cloak-and-dagger officers said they were “95% sure” Moscow had ripped off the AstraZeneca jab. Former security minister James Brokenshire, who died from cancer last week, told reporters at the time that “we are very careful in terms of calling these things out, ensuring we can have that confidence in attribution. We believe we have this here.”
Neither Brokenshire nor The Sun’s spy sources offered an explanation for why Sputnik V has been demonstrated to have a higher efficacy than AstraZeneca’s jab in a series of peer-reviewed international publications. A situation which would have made a competent fact-checker reject the copy, if The Sun had any.
Russian authorities also insist that the jab has not been associated with severe side effects, while the British-made vaccine was briefly suspended from use in a number of EU nations, including Germany and Denmark, over concerns of a link to rare instances of blood clots. While the fears were demonstrated to be largely overblown, no such issues have been made public from any of the 70 countries in which the Russian formula is being used.
Gennady Onishchenko, a lawmaker from the governing United Russia party, a former presidential aide and ex-chief of Russia’s health regulator, hit out furiously at the claims on Monday. “I suggest they send The Sun’s journalists for a psychological evaluation,” he told RIA Novosti. “And the MI6 employees should be fired for losing the ability to do their jobs. The layout of this vaccine was developed back in 2012 when we had Middle East Respiratory Syndrome to contend with.” He added that a greater concern was that Russia was falling far behind the UK in getting people to sign up for the jab. “This is bad,” Onishchenko said.
The Kremlin refused to be drawn into responding to the row in full, saying only that “The Sun is a famously unscientific newspaper. This is how we should approach such a publication.” However, Alexander Gintzburg, one of Russia’s leading scientists and the leader of the team that developed Sputnik V at Moscow’s Gamaleya Center previously said the claims from London “made me very happy and amused.”
In a statement issued in response to the allegations, the team behind the Russian vaccine said that the methods used to develop the two formulas were entirely different in any case. “AstraZeneca uses chimpanzee adenoviral vector for its vaccine rather than the human vector used by Sputnik V,” the scientists said. In addition, the formula is unique in having two separate components that make up each of the two required doses, they say. By contrast, AstraZeneca uses the same component twice.
The UK-based firm has even started up a set of partnerships with colleagues who worked on Sputnik V in an effort to boost its own jab’s protective effects.
Sputnik V drew derision and criticism in the West when it became the world’s first registered Covid-19 vaccine last year. Since then, however, scientific analyses have reported that the formula has a 97% efficacy rate, which its creators describe as “one of the best protection rates against coronavirus among all vaccines.” This compares with a 74% rate from AstraZeneca’s studies in the US, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
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