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Russia's History of Exporting Vaccines

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In recent years, Russia has tried to reassert its global influence in many ways, from military action in Ukraine to meddling in U.S. elections. So when Russia developed a coronavirus vaccine, it prioritized exporting it to dozens of other countries — at the expense of its own people.
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Today, when Russia developed a vaccine against COVID-19, it prioritized exporting it to dozens of foreign countries at the expense of its own people. Sabrina Tavernise spoke with our colleague Andrew Kramer about how Russia is attempting to use its vaccine to improve its strength and standing on the world stage. It's Monday April 26. Andrew Sabrina. Hello. Hi. So why are we talking about Russia and vaccines? Well, this came as a surprise to, I think a lot of people in 2020 when the pandemic began, the Russian government is saying it's on track to approve a coronavirus vaccine in august, well ahead of other countries, including the US. The UK. Russia very quickly announced that it was developing a vaccine against the coronavirus. The sheer speed at which Russian scientists have been able to develop this vaccine has raised a lot of eyebrows across the world. There was skepticism, there was certainly the feeling that that's not likely to be much of a success given the disorganized state of Russian science. But by the middle of the year they had already announced a working vaccine. Russia's Sputnik vaccine is 91.4 effective, according to the manufacturer. It's got emergency clearance in 15 nations. If you look at the history though, it's less of a surprise. Tell me about the history. What do you mean? Well, the story really starts in the aftermath of World War One, when the soviet union encountered quite a lot of infectious disease throughout its territory. One of the main focuses was confronting the bubonic plague. It seems like a ghost from the middle Ages, but this was actually a serious problem in the soviet Union in the 19 twenties and the country set up what were called sanitary epidemiological stations, the equivalent of the C. D. C. In the United States. They were field stations to detect and contain infectious diseases. There was a lot of resources put into this and by the 1930s Soviet effort to control infectious diseases had really focused on vaccines. And by the end of this decade the Soviet Union was a global leader in virology and vaccine development but it was not alone. The US had also been through the spanish flu and had been forced to develop expertise in vaccines and was making strides in this science so that both the soviet Union and the United States were very proficient in vaccine development. So these two countries were the global leaders in vaccines. That's right, particularly coming out of World War Two. The Soviet Union and the United States were the global leaders in vaccine science and the real concern in the late 1940s was polio. This year the enemy poliomyelitis struck with such impact and fury that it shook the entire nation. Polio was the most frightening disease around. It has closed the gates on normal childhood. It has swept our beaches, stilled our boats and emptied our parks. It was the number one killer of Children. And it has spread rapidly after the chaos of World War Two. There has been no escape, no immunity for this is epidemic. There were devastating polio outbreaks in the United States, as well as in the soviet Union. By the mid 19 fifties, the soviet Union was reporting about 22,000 polio cases a year, which was about one third of the level of polio in the United States, but was still a tremendous problem and something that was very frightening to parents because it was an incurable disease and very often resulted in paralysis and sometimes death. So by the 1950s, both the Soviet Union and the United States were experiencing really serious polio outbreaks. So what was the relationship between the two countries at the time? Well, it was complicated. Looking at Russia, we might see it as a country to be studied. Yet we know that Russia today is regarded as a grave threat to our nation. This was the beginning of the Cold War. The two countries were at odds really, everywhere you looked Berlin, powder keg of europe, saw a mass demonstration of indoctrinated young Germans on May Day and across the world in Japan America stronghold in the pacific the busy Comey's were added again. There was military competition in Eastern europe and in Southeast Asia. This first satellite well today, successfully launched in the US aside, the space race was just getting started at this time in the 1950s on every continent and in every land. The Story of Sputnik one dominated the front pages. The Soviets had scored a scientific first. It is a challenge that President Eisenhower has said, America must meet to survive in the space age. And there really wasn't a whole lot of cooperation at all at this point. So the soviet union and the United States are really at odds. We're at the beginning of the Cold War. Meanwhile, polio is spreading really fast in both countries. So how do these two governments respond? So, the first vaccination efforts were carried out in the United States, there was an attempt to use killed, inactivated polio. Unfortunately, there was a bad batch of this polio vaccine which infected hundreds of Children in the United States and killed some of them and created a lot of vaccine skepticism and also a realization that this approach to polio vaccine may not be the best and there might be a better way using a more modern technology, which was a weakened virus. But the problem was that this would require giving a live polio virus two Children. And there was nobody really in the United States who wanted to run this experiment. And that's because there had been this botched experiment in which Children actually died. That's right. And it was even more frightening to give your child a live poliovirus as opposed to something that had been inactivated or supposedly inactivated. So while the technology was developed in the United States, there just was no way to test this in the United States. What about the soviet Union? What is it doing? Well, in the late 1950s, the Soviet delegation traveled to the United States led by a husband and wife team of virologists, Mikhail Shmakov and Maria Varsha Llama. And they visited with American scientist and asked for a sample of this new polio vaccine to bring back to the soviet Union. Now the american scientists sought permission. They approached the State Department and the FBI, which provided approval for exporting essentially a brand new medical invention to the soviet union. According to a study of this exchange, the Defense Department raise objections that the Soviets might use it to develop a germ warfare program. But ultimately the decision was made that this could be provided to the scientists. There could be scientific cooperation between the two countries And the live polio vaccine sample was carried to the Soviet Union by one account in the pocket of Markov. In the pocket. That's right. It was more casual, perhaps than it would be done today. This was a potentially risky live virus. The soviet scientist brought it to his laboratory for infectious disease tested. It determined that it would probably be safe and effective. But then there was the next step that had to be taken. This had to be tested on Children. So what does a cough do? So in soviet medicine, there was a tradition that the inventor of a new technique or new medicine should try this on himself first. So he discusses this with his wife, who is also a virologist and they decided that they will provide the live polio vaccine to their own young Children on sugar cubes, wow, that's incredible, their own Children. That's right. And this experiment was carried out in a Moscow apartment in late 1950s. They had their own Children line up and provided them with the sugar cubes with a drop of live polio virus on them and then watch to see what would happen and what did happen. Well, thankfully nothing, it was a safe vaccine. They did not develop polio. What they did develop was immunity to polio because the virus was weakened and this was an effective vaccine. They took their findings based on this experiment, on their own Children, to senior officials in the soviet government. As a next step, they tested the vaccine on orphans in the Baltic states in Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania. There was a large polio outbreak in this area and this was going to be the solution to the problem. And it was a gamble that paid off 1959. They had begun mass vaccinations and in 1960 they vaccinated every person in the Soviet Union between the ages of two months and 20 years old at the time. It was the fastest mass vaccination ever carried out. And they eliminated pull
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