Health

Kazakhstan eyes Russia's COVID-19 vaccine with caution

By Kanat Altynbayev

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Kazakh scientists are working on their own solution in the fight against COVID-19. [US embassy in Kazakhstan]

ALMATY -- A coronavirus vaccine developed by Russia is not suitable for certain demographics at risk for the disease, warn Kazakh officials, who add that a Kazakh-made vaccine is under development.

Moscow announced last month that the vaccine, named "Sputnik V" after the Soviet-era satellite that was the first launched into space in 1957, had already received approval.

This rush to promote the vaccine raised concerns among Western and Russian scientists alike over a lack of safety data, with some warning that moving too quickly could be dangerous.

The Russian coronavirus vaccine is "contraindicated for people from the COVID-19 infection risk group", Kazakh Vice Minister of Healthcare Marat Shoranov said in an online briefing on September 3.

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The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on September 1 delivered $316,000 (135.2 million KZT) worth of equipment and supplies to two laboratories in Almaty. The Kazakh Central Reference Laboratory and the Kazakh Scientific and Practical Centre for Sanitary and Epidemiological Expertise and Monitoring will use the items. They intend to obtain high quality samples and to increase the productivity of testing for COVID-19 that relies on the highly specific polymerase chain reaction process. [US embassy in Kazakhstan]

The vaccine could present a risk for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, sufferers of chronic illnesses, and individuals younger than 18 and older than 60, he said.

"These contraindications ... greatly limit the ability to vaccinate the most vulnerable populations in the country," Shoranov said.

About 2 million residents of Kazakhstan fall within those risk categories, according to Nurlybek Asylbekov, a spokesman for the Committee for Quality Control and Safety of Goods and Services of the Kazakh Ministry of Healthcare.

The outcome, not the manufacturer, is what is important, he emphasised.

"We want to minimise the risk of side effects in these vaccines," he said. "The most important thing for us is to get an effective vaccine and serve the population in the vaccination risk group."

Concerns over Sputnik V

During a visit to Moscow on August 24, Healthcare Minister Alexey Tsoy and a delegation inked an agreement on Kazakhstan's purchase of Sputnik V in the event that the vaccine receives international certification.

Kazakhstan will not make a decision on purchasing the vaccine until after the completion of the final, phase 3 trials, Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar said at an online news conference September 7.

The anticipated completion date is December 2020.

"At that point we'll already know the side effects," said Asylbekov, stressing that it is impossible for Sputnik V not to have any.

In addition to considering the Russian vaccine for purchase, Kazakhstan is keeping a close eye on the development of other vaccines, especially by the United States and Great Britain, for potential acquisition.

Mynzhylky Berdikhojayev, chief of the neurosurgery department at the Central Clinical Hospital in Almaty, said he does not trust the Russian vaccine, which has not yet undergone phase 3 trials.

"We need to be sure that the vaccine doesn't cause a serum sickness two or three years down the line," he said. "Lots of people want a vaccine as soon as possible without considering the consequences, but when complications start cropping up, they'll regret that."

"I don't have much faith in the Russian government's announcement that it already has a product that's ready to be used," said Asel Saliyeva, a doctor at a specialised COVID-19 hospital in Nur-Sultan.

"When a vaccine is first tested, it may seem safe, but the consequences can show up much later," she said. "We can't risk the health of millions of people, even when it seems that the risk is justified."

Working on a new vaccine

Kazakh scientists are working hard on their own vaccine.

Kazakhstan has completed pre-clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine, and the initial results showed an "explosive growth in antibodies", Minister of Education and Science Askhat Aimagambetov said August 21, according to Vlast.kz.

The developers of the Kazakh vaccine became the first volunteer test subjects of their own product, and the tests showed explosive growth in the antibodies immunoglobulin M and immunoglobulin G, he said.

The results of the pre-clinical trials indicated the safety of the Kazakh vaccine, he added.

"We're proud of our colleagues' work in developing a vaccine," Aimagambetov said. "Both our inactivated vaccine and the subunit vaccine have been included on the registry of the World Health Organisation."

Kazakhstan was hit hard by the pandemic in June and July, when case numbers surged. Authorities lifted a state of emergency May 11 and relaxed quarantine measures.

As of Monday (September 14), Kazakhstan had recorded more than 106,000 COVID-19 cases, including more than 1,600 deaths, according to the government.

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Kazakhs, what do you need this untested Russian vaccine for? Run away from them as far as you can.

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