A while back, when many Americans read not one but two newspapers — morning and afternoon — a saying emerged in my first newsroom: The afternoon paper gets the story, the morning paper gets it right.
Having worked for two (now dead) afternoon papers, I could argue for swapping the order, but the message endures: Hurrying to beat competitors and get the story first often meant essential revisions, if not corrections, later. It takes time to properly report a story.
My memory of this essential truth was jarred by the news that Russia has announced the development of an effective COVID-19 vaccine, which President Vladimir Putin has named Sputnik V.
Bless his heart. Already in the final phase of human trials, the vaccine has raised concerns that the lab behind the vaccine, the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, may have cut corners in trying to beat the clock.
The vaccine’s name tells most of the story. Sputnik, of course, refers to the then-Soviet Union’s first manmade satellite, which was launched Oct. 4, 1957. About the size of a beach ball, Sputnik orbited Earth for about three weeks before its batteries died. After circling silently for another two months, the orb finally reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and rolled into history’s dustbin. It didn’t matter; the Soviets were most pleased to have left the U.S. fumbling at the launchpad.
Rivalry was a powerful motivator, and at the time the Soviets and Americans were competing to develop rocket, engine and reentry technologies. Today, the egos have just expanded commensurate to the challenge of stopping a deadly virus that is galloping around the globe.
As a point of pride, Putin pointed out that one of his own daughters has taken the vaccine and suffered only a slight, short-lived, temperature increase. That sounds convincing, doesn’t it? My daughter didn’t die, so it’s all good.
One can’t help but wonder how that father-daughter conversation might have gone. Did Maria and Katerina draw straws? Putin isn’t saying which of his adult daughters took the two doses, only that whichever daughter downed the draught “has taken part in the experiment,” said proud papa.
I do wonder what the former Mrs. Putin makes of all this.
Clinical trial volunteers are surely the bravest and most selfless of souls, or, as in Putin’s trials, “volunteers” and military personnel. The human studies began on June 17 with 76 volunteers, half of whom received a liquid form of the vaccine, the other half a soluble powder. Putin’s claims that the vaccine is safe has so far not convinced other health and research authorities, including the World Health Organization. (Does that mean we like the WHO now?)
Putin could have truly found the magic formula, of course, especially if Russian hackers stole vaccine research from Western labs. The United States, Britain and Canada claimed last month that Russian hackers were attempting to do just that. Maybe Russia has hit on a workable vaccine, which Putin says will be good for two years. If Russia got there first, it will have gone some distance to reclaiming some of the prestige its leader, at least, so desperately craves.
Putin is like any other former KGB empire-monger. His ambitions can be summed up in the words he used to describe his dog when he introduced the gigantic beast to then-President George W. Bush: “Bigger, stronger, faster,” said Putin. Bush recounted this story to me and a few other opinion writers in the Oval Office one day. Although the “beast” was a friendly black lab named Koni and a regular guest at official meetings — and Putin was reportedly just needling his ranch buddy — Bush saw a useful metaphor that he packed away as a reminder for future dealings.
To wit: When the coronavirus hit Russia, Putin ordered officials to speed up vaccine development and, one may infer, create a concoction bigger, stronger and faster than all the rest. Like his American counterpart, Putin cares most about winning, and Sputnik V is his metaphor.
We won’t have long to wait and see what a mass vaccination looks like. Large-scale production of Sputnik V is slated to begin next month, with vaccinations possibly in early October. First in line will be — yikes — doctors, maybe as soon as September. “First kill the doctors” has a certain unhelpful ring to it, but Putin stresses that they will be volunteers.
The real test, of course, would be for Putin himself to accept the first injection of the mass-produced vaccine. Maybe his other daughter could join him.
As for me, I’ll be waiting for the morning edition — after the revisions and corrections have been made.