NUR-SULTAN -- The fact that it hasn't completed its clinical trials hasn't stopped thousands of Kazakh citizens from getting their first shot of the domestically developed coronavirus vaccine QazVac.
The two-dose vaccine is still in its third stage of studies, which are expected to be completed in July. But QazVac's developers -- the state-backed Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems -- insists the vaccine is safe and effective.
The institute claims QazVac has shown a 96 percent efficacy against the virus during second-phase testing.
No serious side effects have been reported among the vaccine recipients since the QazVac rollout began on April 26. The Health Ministry says 50,000 doses of QazVac have been distributed across the Central Asian country of nearly 19 million people.
I’d support vaccination with QazVac once I see enough published data [that backs the developers’ claims].”-- Asel Musabekova, a French-based expert on cellular and molecular biology
But some independent experts have expressed skepticism due to what they describe as insufficient testing information, as well as the relatively small number of participants in QazVac testing thus far.
By the QazVac developers’ own admission, some 3,000 people took part in the trials that began in September. For comparison, the study for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine involved more than 43,000 participants.
Lesbek Kutymbetov, a QazVac developer, said the team is “fully confident that the vaccine is harmless.” He added that the research institute has been involved in vaccine production for decades.
QazVac was developed using the traditional method of taking a dead virus to spur an immune response from the body, Kutymbetov explained. After testing the vaccine on animals, Kutymbetov was the first person to get a QazVac jab in its early trials.
According to the QazVac manufacturer, it doesn’t need to be stored in freezers like the prominently used Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. QazVac can be kept in regular refrigerators.
Like the other coronavirus vaccines, it’s not yet clear how long QazVac will give immunity from the coronavirus to someone. Early research showed “antibodies lasted about half-a-year and then their numbers decreased in the seventh month,” Kutymbetov said.
'No Time To Write Articles'
QazVaq developers haven’t published much information about their research on the vaccine, with Kutymbetov saying that they “don’t have time…to write articles.”
Asel Musabekova, a French-based expert on cellular and molecular biology, said a lack of information makes it impossible to assess the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
“They could at least publish the results of the first and second phases of the clinical trials," she said. "I’d support vaccination with QazVac once I see enough published data [that backs the developers’ claims].”
Musabekova also said QazVac developers should have recruited a much larger pool of participants during the trials.
“Rare side effects can only be seen in large-scale clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people,” the Kazakh-born expert explained.
The lack of information, however, hasn’t dampened the mood among many Kazakhs who stood in line to get injections across the country.
Aigul Nurlybekova, a 27-year-old resident of the capital, Nur-Sultan, received her first QazVac shot on April 28. The second dose should be taken three weeks later.
“I contracted coronavirus last summer. Six months later, when I heard about QazVac, I decided to get inoculated with it," Nurlybekova said, adding that she trusts the domestically made vaccine.
Five days since getting the injection, Nurlybekova said she hasn’t experienced any major side effects.
Almaty resident Ardak Bukeeva did her homework before opting for QazVac over the Russian-made Sputnik V, a second vaccine option that is offered in Kazakhstan.
A journalist by profession, Bukeeva visited the research institute in February and spoke with the QazVac team to inquire about the vaccine they were developing.
Bukeeva told RFE/RL that at the end it was the institute’s “years of expertise” as well as the tried-and-tested vaccine ingredient -- “the fully neutralized virus” -- that convinced her to choose QazVac for herself and her family. She received her first dose on April 27.
“I hope it will be effective against the various coronavirus strains that we hear about every day, in India and elsewhere,” Bukeeva said.
Both women say many of their friends and acquaintances who have received QazVac injections haven’t had any serious side effects and are content with the vaccine.
But some Kazakhs took to social media to share their reservations about the sparse information on QazVac.
“Where are the research results? Where is the evaluation by foreign scientists? Not much is known about the components of the vaccine -- there is almost no data,” Nur-Sultan resident Viktoria Murzintseva wrote on Facebook.
“I can't even find decent domestically produced underwear anywhere, [let alone a coronavirus vaccine],” wrote a more skeptical Nur-Sultan resident, Aigul Fort.
So far, more than 1 million people in the Central Asian country -- about 5.7 percent of the population -- have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, mostly Sputnik V.
The resource-rich nation has also placed an order with Beijing for a million doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine.
Some Kazakhs say they’re patiently waiting until more is known about the coronavirus vaccines in general before deciding whether to get one or not.
“I will wait. I’m in no hurry,” wrote Kazakh social-media user Zhanargul Omarova. “I will continue to wear a mask, wash my hands. I’m not going to weddings or parties and I have no plans to travel abroad anytime soon.”
There has been an official total of some 332,000 cases of the coronavirus in Kazakhstan, with 3,796 deaths as of May 5. Many observers and media outlets say those figures are grossly underreported due to government officials trying to hide the actual numbers.