A global race is on to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Illustration: AFP/Allan Carvalho/NurPhoto

Russia could be only a few weeks away from starting mass production of a vaccine for Covid-19, but the unorthodox approach adopted to speed up the process is likely to reduce the chances of the Russian vaccine gaining worldwide adoption. 

“The first domestic vaccine against the novel coronavirus infection is ready,” stated Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Ruslan Tsalikov in an interview with Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty on Tuesday.

The statement came one day after a last group of volunteers was discharged from hospitals showing positive results in Phase I trials of the vaccine. All of them, according to Russian authorities, had developed immunity to Covid-19. 

Military leads the way

Russia’s research into the vaccine has been led by the state-run Gamaleya National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Main Military Clinical Burdenko Hospital, Tsalikov said.

The research was supported by the Ministry of Defense, which has significant experience with vaccine development, having previously made major contributions to an ebola vaccine, Tsalikov said.

The research was funded by Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Fund head Kirill Dmitriev told the media on July 16 that the vaccine would be ready to enter mass production by the end of August.

According to Dmitriev, Russia could produce 30 million doses for domestic usage in 2020 and 170 million for abroad, with several countries already expressing interest in producing it. 

The Russian Health Ministry, however, has been more cautious in assessing the progress, pointing out that the vaccine needed to complete two more trial phases. 

An intense international race is underway to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, which so far has killed more than 600,000 people around the world. More than 150 vaccines are now being developed, with China’s Sinopharm and the UK’s Oxford University and AstroZeneca among the leaders in the research. 

With Russia having 782,040 Covid-19 cases and 12,561 deaths, Moscow has now emerged as a front runner as it charges through clinical trials.

The phase one tests – which involved military personnel – were completed last week and included tests of both powder and liquid vaccines. The second phase trials are due to be completed within the next two weeks.  

The last phase of the trials, due to start on August 3, will be conducted on thousands of people in not only Russia, but also in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Dubious practices alleged

But according to Anton Gopka, head at the health-care investment firm ATEM Capital, such speedy advancement in vaccine development has only been possible by sacrificing the quality of the testing. 

“There won’t be enough data to prove that the vaccine is completely safe. Normally you need over a year to guarantee that level of safety,” he told Asia Times.

Separately, senior South Korean officials told reporters last week, citing safety concerns, that they do not anticipate the rollout of a vaccine to be feasible this year.  

Another question hanging over the Russian effort is why the country took unorthodox steps in testing. Not only has it used military personnel instead of regular volunteers, scientists have also been self-testing. 

As revealed by Alexander Gintsburg, the head of the Gamaleya Institute, in an interview on state channel Rossiya 1, scientists have been testing the experimental vaccine on themselves since May, before any authorization was given by the Ministry of Health. Gintsburg admitted publicly that he tested the vaccine on himself and his family. 

Scientists’ self-testing triggered widespread condemnation, even from the domestic clinical research association, which defined it as a “crude violation of the foundations of clinical research conduct, Russian legislation and international norms.”

Elite getting shots

Even more criticism arose after anonymous sources cited by Bloomberg in an investigative report claimed that members of the Russian elite have been getting shots of the experimental vaccine since April. 

Among those who took the vaccine were government officials and top managers at aluminum giant United Co Rusal. 

The Bloomberg story raised many questions within Russia.

Asked whether President Vladimir Putin had been among those who took the vaccine, his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov replied that “it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to use an uncertified vaccine on the head of state.” 

Commenting on the Bloomberg allegations, Gintsburg said he was not aware that members of the elite had access to the vaccine. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health denied that the vaccine was tested on anyone apart from volunteers officially enlisted for trials. 

And Moscow’s efforts to win the upper hand in the race for the vaccine may have gone even further than Gintsburg’s statements and the Bloomberg story suggest. 

Hacking allegations

According to American, British and Canadian authorities, the Kremlin has been deploying hackers to steal information on vaccines from Western research centers. 

Western cybersecurity agencies claim the Russian hacker group known as Cozy Bears was behind the attack. The group, which is considered to have ties to Russian secret services, was involved in hacking the Democratic Party’s database during the 2016 US Elections. 

The allegations, made at the highest levels, have generated a major diplomatic row. “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” said UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. 

Russian officials denied any involvement in the hacks.

Meanwhile, some observers are considering the rationale behind Moscow’s headlong rush in vaccine development. 

As pointed out by Gopka, even if Russia is the first to release its vaccine, that would not necessarily bring many benefits to the country if its research protocols are suspect.

“At the end of the day, the winner of the race will be the vaccine which will be accepted worldwide,” said Gopka. 

According to the venture capitalist, given the highly unorthodox methodologies adopted for testing, it is highly unlikely the Russian vaccine will be sold worldwide. “These methods cast a shadow on the overall process and on the quality of the research,” Gopka said. 

Still, at a time when Russia is facing Western economic sanctions and suspicions on multiple fronts, Moscow may not simply want the kudos of winning the vaccine race.

A further motive could be that the Kremlin does not want to end up being dependent on an upcoming Western vaccine – hence the urgent need for a Plan B. 

“Russia needs a domestic vaccine as a way to negotiate prices down,” suggested Gopka. “If the prices of a Western-developed vaccine are too high, they will use a domestic one.”

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