Society 21 June 2020

Is Russia about to develop a coronavirus vaccine?

The Ministry of Health this week approved human trials for two coronavirus vaccines as Russia races to become the first country in the world to launch the industrial production of a coronavirus vaccine. The Bell looked into how two state-owned research institutes are competing against each other to be the first to come up with a vaccine.

  • Officials have kept Putin regularly informed about progress toward a vaccine since last month. Normally, testing would take years, but the president has been promised a coronavirus vaccine will be ready by September. Officials told him 47 potential vaccines (Rus) are being developed in Russia at the moment, although a World Health Organization list includes only 10 possible Russian-made vaccines.
  • The Bell discovered (Rus) that only two state-owned research institutes have a real chance of developing a vaccine. They are Novosibirsk-based Vektor, founded in the 1970s for the development of biological weapons, and Moscow’s Gamalei Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. Groups of interested officials and major pharmaceutical companies have gathered around these two centers in recent months.
  • The coronavirus epidemic has thrust state-funded research institutes into the spotlight, and they are fighting for funding. There is a lot at stake: The Bell calculated that about 10 billion rubles ($150 million) may be spent on developing a vaccine.
  • The current leader of the race is believed to be the Gamalei Institute. In May, its head, Alexander Ginzburg, said in an interview (Rus) — as if by accident — that the center’s researchers have successfully tested a vaccine on themselves. “They have immunity and there were no negative side effects,” Ginzburg said.
  • Medical professionals were indignant: such experiments violate scientific ethics and undermine trust in Russian drug developers. But Ginzburg knew what he was doing, and it is his vaccine that the government has decided to begin production of in September. The Gamalei Institute’s vaccine was tested (Rus) this week on 18 military volunteers (in the West testing on military personnel is generally forbidden). And the head of Russia’s sovereign investment fund, which is sponsoring the vaccine, also allowed himself to be used as a human guinea pig. He told (Rus) journalists that — so far — he feels fine.
  • Experts and pharmaceutical executives told (Rus) The Bell that there are doubts over the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. But they admitted the world is in a hurry to find a vaccine, and Russia must not be left behind. If Russia is successful, private pharmaceutical companies could make huge profits on exports of the vaccine. But first, they will be obliged to support a mass vaccination of Russians. For now, the authorities have said that any such vaccination program will be voluntary.

Why the world should care

It’s unlikely Russia will be able to produce a vaccine to save the world from the coronavirus. But there is no doubt some sort of vaccine will soon be offered to Russians. The economic benefits from an effective vaccine would be enormous.