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The race inside Russia’s coronavirus vaccine laboratory

Russia powered through with developing a coronavirus vaccine to give people hope and not because of political pressure, the nation’s top virologist told CNN in a rare interview.

All other work at the Gamaleya Institute was suspended and scientists and researchers were tasked with developing an effective vaccine, said the institute’s director, Alexander Gintsburg.

Promising results led to the vaccine being approved even before widespread human testing, Gintsburg insisted. That’s testing that experts say is required before any vaccine is widely used.

“It gave people a choice to either protect themselves or play roulette with a pathogen — will you get infected or not, will you die or not?” he said.

Critics across the globe say the breakneck speed of the vaccine development points to political pressure from the Kremlin, which is keen to portray Russia as a global scientific force. It was President Vladimir Putin himself who announced the approval of the vaccine amid much fanfare on Russian state television.

And its name — Sputnik V — harks back to the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first space satellite decades ago.

But Gintsburg told CNN the Kremlin did not give instructions to Gamaleya.

“We do not have direct communication with the Kremlin, it does not give any orders to us,” Gintsburg said. “The only link to the Kremlin [we have] is Putin Vladimir Vladimirovich’s portrait in my cabinet,” Gintsburg chuckled, referring to a picture of a younger Vladimir Putin adorning his office — a birthday gift he received 14 years ago from friends, he said.

“Our task is to isolate this pathogen and to defeat it, which is exactly what we are doing now. And, as we all very well know, it can only be defeated with the help of vaccination.”

The Moscow-based Gamaleya institute is one of Russia’s oldest, most accomplished vaccine research laboratories. But in the rush to create Sputnik V, it has bypassed normal scientific practices.

As well as skipping large-scale human tests before approval, Russian soldiers were used as “volunteers” in early trials and, the Institute’s director even injected himself and his staff with the experimental vaccine, CNN learned, as early as April.

“We vaccinated ourselves and our staff. Primarily, the staff that participate in developing this vaccine product. I don’t have that many staffers, so I value every employee very much,” Gintsburg told CNN. “An illness of any members of the staff would be a hard blow not just to me personally but also for our workflow. I couldn’t allow this to happen, to lose any of our staffers as a result of being infected by Covid-19.”

Russia has had the fourth greatest number of coronavirus cases across the world, behind the US, India and Brazil, according to Johns Hopkins University. It ranks 12th for overall deaths, the JHU data shows.

Results from the first human tests of Sputnik V were published in The Lancet last month. Importantly, just 76 people were involved in the trials. Experts say that’s too small to determine if the Russian vaccine was safe and effective. But, Lancet reported the peer-reviewed clinical data was mostly positive with only mild adverse effects reported and it did trigger an immune response in trial participants.

The fast-tracking of the vaccine approval by Russia before the phase 3 human trials had begun and at a time when the whole world is looking for a vaccine, generated criticism outside Russia. But Gintsburg, who describes the pandemic as a “war” and an “emergency,” said he has no qualms.

“Maybe we should ask the relatives of those who died if they would have preferred to vaccinate their loved ones with a vaccine that demonstrated brilliant early results and no side effects, or to wait until the end of the trials for these results to be confirmed, I believe the answer to this question is obvious,” he added.

After months of requests, CNN was allowed an exclusive tour inside the actual labs where the vaccine was developed.

Researchers wearing gloves and white coats were working on Sputnik V in buildings that have been used for scientific research since the Soviet era.

The head of the laboratory, Vladimir Gushchin, said the team used their expertise, in addition to knowledge and techniques honed in vaccine development for other diseases to perhaps get an edge over international pharmaceutical companies also looking to create a Covid-19 vaccine.

And he said the focus purely on beating coronavirus was vital.

“What’s the secret? I think the secret is when your team is really involved, concentration on this process. In many pharma firms you have different projects in which you are involved. But here (we) concentrate on this special task, people are ready to stay here overnight.”

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund (RDIF), which has funded the vaccine production, has announced deals to supply hundreds of millions of doses of Sputnik V to countries around the world.

After US President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, Gushchin told CNN that the US should reconsider its refusal to cooperate on a vaccine.

“Now would be a good time for the US to seriously consider the Russian vaccine to defend themselves against Covid-19,” he said. “Trump would not be in this situation if he’d been vaccinated with Sputnik V.”

The Kremlin now says Putin himself may soon take the vaccine, ahead of a possible trip to South Korea. He would become the latest high-profile Russian to take Sputnik-V including the defense minister, the mayor of Moscow and, according to Putin, one of his own daughters.

But the vaccine’s creator does not appear fazed.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Gintsburg said,” I just feel a certain responsibility for the vaccine product, and I will feel it all my life.”

Health

CNN

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