On the one hand, ‘backward, deeply undemocratic Russia’ simply lacks the right to carry out such breakthroughs in complex scientific and technologically advanced fields. On the other, there is a jackpot at stake so astronomical in size that the mere idea that it might elude Western pharmaceutical giants is cause for heartburn. For example, think of what the news of an agreement between Moscow and Delhi on the supply of a hundred million doses of Sputnik-V to India alone is worth.
It’s not surprising that Russia has faced numerous attempts to discredit the results of the work of its scientists: big politics means big money.
However, next to the sharks one will always find sucker fish, who regularly get a snack from their masters’ dinner. That’s exactly what happened when the results of Sputnik-V testing were announced by The Lancet, one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals in the world.
The article was torn apart by critics with lighting speed. The ‘loudest’ of these criticisms spread by world media was the open letter by Enrico Bucci, a biology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, who expressed fears about the mistakes ‘possibly made by Russian researchers’. Bucci’s letter received the support of over two dozen other Western scientists.
The Lancet invited the developers of Sputnik-V to answer the questions they had, and this was done. The Gamaleya Center presented the publication with the full-length clinical protocol of its study of the Sputnik-V vaccine.
Meanwhile, the problem in this case is not only a purely scientific one, on which the Russian researchers have focused.
The fact is that Dr. Bucci is himself a rather remarkable person. The BBC’s Russian service calls him a “famous fighter against pseudoscience”. However, it would be more appropriate to describe him as a “businessman representing science”.
In 2016, Bucci founded Resis Srl, a company specialising in the verification, fact-checking and validation of scientific papers. This is a trendy topic in modern science. Too often in recent years, researchers have been caught making mistakes, including major ones, in articles they’ve published. And it’s not necessarily a matter of abuses or fraud. Often it’s a matter of honest mistakes, which, when exposed, nevertheless affect the reputation of scientists and even entire scientific institutions.
It is precisely to avoid such problems that authors and research institutions often turn to firms like Bucci’s to carry out an independent audit of their texts before publication. For example, Bucci’s company was hired for this purpose by Germany’s Fritz Lipmann Institute, which was impacted by a major scandal some time back due to crude mistakes in its published materials. A detailed article on that scandal appeared in Nature in late 2019.
The subtle point worth noting here is that businesses like Bucci’s are obliged to follow certain ethical restrictions, something the professor knows perfectly well. In an article appearing in Nature in December 2019 which he coauthored, which is dedicated to integrity and conscientiousness in published work, it was honestly pointed out that people like Bucci have a conflict of interest. Simply put, when an owner of a commercial company speaks publicly about the activity in which he specialises, it essentially becomes an advertisement for his firm.
Of course, when it comes to ‘discrediting’ the Russian vaccine, such trifles are no longer important. Western countries used Bucci’s open (and by definition self-promoting) letter to ‘strike another blow against’ Russian scientists in the hopes of undermining or at least temporarily weakening their leading position. Meanwhile, the professor himself has received free PR of a scale and magnitude that he could not have even dreamed about under any other circumstances. This is called “riding the wave of hype”, and is a principle according to which hundreds of thousands of media personalities operate.
There’s no doubt that doing so will pay off for Bucci in the form of very attractive new commercial contracts. Catching hype in the troubled waters of big politics can be very profitable. But this has nothing to do with science generally, or medicine in particular, or the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.