Russia’s vaccine gamble
Russia announced today that it had approved a vaccine for the coronavirus, the first country in the world to do so. But the claim has been met with international skepticism because the vaccine has not been thoroughly tested.
Vaccines generally go through three stages of human testing before they are approved. The first two phases test the vaccine on small numbers of people to see if it stimulates an immune response without harm. In the final phase — known as Phase 3 — the vaccine is compared to a placebo and is given to thousands of people.
Our colleague Carl Zimmer, who covers science for The Times, told us that a large-scale trial was the only way to know with any certainty that a vaccine would work, and it would help identify subtle side effects that might have been missed in smaller studies.
The Russian vaccine, known as Sputnik-V, has not yet entered Phase 3, and scientific data from its earlier trails has not been published. Still, the health minister said that the country would begin vaccinating teachers and health workers this month, followed by a mass vaccination campaign in the fall.
“That’s like taking a plane up in the sky, claiming that it works, when you’ve never actually taken a test flight,” Carl told us. “Maybe it will work, or maybe you’ll crash into the ground.”
Western regulators don’t expect a vaccine to become widely available before the end of the year at the earliest. President Vladimir Putin’s rush to announce the vaccine is raising concerns that Russia is cutting corners in order to gain propaganda points.
“Vaccine experts have been warning about this kind of political grandstanding for months now,” Carl said. “Vaccines are among the safest medicines in history. But if someone just decides to skip some vital parts of the process and put out a vaccine that doesn’t work, you can raise doubts in people’s minds about other vaccines. And if people don’t trust vaccines, they may not take them.”
The Times’s Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker monitors vaccines that have reached trials in humans, along with a selection that are still being tested in cells or animals.
Trouble in the air
Scientists have at last confirmed what many people have believed for months: Floating respiratory droplets called aerosols can contain live coronavirus particles and infect cells — a critical discovery in the case for airborne transmission.
The researchers captured the particles from air in a Covid-19 hospital ward and then used them to infect cells in their lab. Significantly, they found that even aerosols collected 16 feet from the patients contained live virus — and that was in a room with six air changes per hour, efficient filters and ultraviolet irradiation.
It is not clear whether the amount of virus they gathered is enough to infect people, but the findings suggest that six feet may not be enough distance indoors.
Fears of airborne transmission have brought ventilation systems into sharper focus. In New York City’s subway, air in the train cars is constantly being sucked up, filtered and combined with outside air, helping prevent the buildup of viral particles. Outdoor air completely replaces the indoor air about 18 times an hour — far more often than in offices or classrooms.
The legacy of 1918. The Spanish flu pandemic prompted the design of steam heating systems, which ushered in the clanky radiators that many city dwellers still have. The idea, Bloomberg reports, was to create enough heat so that windows could remain open, improving ventilation.
What else we’re following
What you’re doing
My partner and I love to sing karaoke, so we bought our own system for quarantine use. We sing on the good days, and the bad days. We even started sending friends “karaokegrams” for their birthdays.
— Shannon Mekuly, Austin, Texas
Let us know how you’re dealing with the outbreak. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.