In the competition for the vaccine against covid-19 in Russia, the product of the Institute named after V.I. Gamalei. How did it happen, because at the beginning of the race the main favorite was the Novosibirsk “Vector”?
At the end of October, it is planned to finally complete the third phase of trials of a new vaccine against covid-19, which is called Sputnik V. Almost no one doubts that the results will be positive. After all, even the Russian president himself Vladimir Putin with obvious pleasure he declared that Russia is the first state in the world that has its own vaccine, back in the summer, when scientists tested it on only a few dozen volunteers.
By the way, the name itself refers to the primacy of the Soviet Union in space exploration and the victory in World War II. It is hard to imagine that such symbols would be associated with something unfortunate. In addition, proponents of the vaccine argue that, in fact, this is only a slightly modified and long-established and tested vaccine against MERS disease, so there is no reason to doubt its ineffectiveness.
Skeptics add that at least it will not harm health, but whether it will protect against coronavirus is a question.
Surprisingly, the Moscow State Institution Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology named after Gamaleya won the competition for who will be the first in Russia to create a vaccine against coronavirus. This is an amazing story about how ambitious scientists from Moscow managed to defeat their competitors in the championship, a victory in which guarantees the leader not only the attention and favor of the Kremlin, but also billions of dollars in earnings.
Getting to know the daughter of the Russian president came in handy in such a race. Ekaterina Tikhonovaand promises to create an elixir of eternal youth (this, of course, aroused great interest among the aging representatives of the Kremlin elite).
Battle of the bureaucrats
The competition began in late February – early March this year, when Russian leaders realized that, despite the small number of infected people and the closure of the borders with China, they could not protect themselves from infection. The coronavirus entered Russia from Europe when representatives of the Russian upper middle class returned from vacation.
At that time, they did not really think about the real scale of the pandemic. A huge shock was the story that happened to the chief epidemiologist of the Stavropol Territory Irina Sannikova… In early March, she traveled to Spain, where by that time a partial quarantine had already been introduced.
Moreover, Sannikova did not tell anyone about her trip to Madrid and, after returning, continued to lecture students at the local university, and also held meetings with doctors on how to respond to the pandemic. As a result, more than a hundred people became infected, and the epidemiologist herself ended up in intensive care.
The competition for the vaccine has begun. The main contenders for primacy in its development were four institutes that belonged to different departments. The Novosibirsk “Vector” is subordinate to Rospotrebnadzor (a kind of analogue of the Czech Trade Inspection with significantly greater powers), the Mikhail Chumakov Research Center – to the Ministry of Education and Science, the Gamaleya Institute – to the Ministry of Health, and the St. Petersburg Vaccine Research Institute – to the Federal Medical biological agency.
The main favorite was Vector, which, during the Soviet era, since 1974, has been developing biological weapons, primarily various types of dangerous viruses. In 1999, in an interview with the specialized magazine Yaderny Kontrol, representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Valentin Yevstigneev, confirmed that Vector was engaged in the “offensive part of the military program” that was banned in 1992. The work was not easy, and at least one scientist, Nikolai Ustinov, contracted the Marburg virus there in 1988, when he got into his hand while taking blood from an infectious monkey. Three weeks later, he died of internal bleeding.
At the start of the pandemic, Vector had a monopoly on the production of covid-19 tests. But he did not have time to produce them in sufficient quantities, and their sensitivity became an object of criticism. In addition, the need to send all samples to Novosibirsk created a logistical problem. Therefore, at the end of March, the government allowed the use of other tests, including those from the Gamaleya Institute.
Time was won. “Representatives of” Vector “at a meeting with Putin on April 1, promised that they will receive an experimental vaccine within ten days. Preclinical trials will end on June 22, and trials on volunteers will begin at the end of June,” says the Moscow journalist Natalia Telegina.
“But this is not what the Kremlin leadership wanted to hear. Then the holidays were extended, the population was in a panic, and the scientists from “Vector” asked to give them time, “a source in the pharmaceutical industry quotes the portal Openmedia.io.
Three weeks later, the head of the Gamaleya Institute, Alexander Gintsburg, also took part in a video meeting with Vladimir Putin. He said that the vaccine is already in fact ready, since it is almost identical to the MERS vaccine, so it will be possible to register it in mid-June.
In fact, Sputnik V as an experimental vaccine was registered according to a simplified procedure only on August 11, but during this time budgetary receipts were transferred from the Novosibirsk “Vector” to the Gamaleya Institute.
As calculated in Openmedia.io, Moscow scientists received 1.8 billion rubles, and Siberian scientists – only 600 million. “In the battle between the Ministry of Healthcare and Rospotrebnadzor, the second pulled out the joker and won. Although the courage and even arrogance of Gunzburg was also amazing, ”says Telegina.
Magic Printing Press
This is not the first time that some doctors are surprised by the actions of the head of the Gamaleya Institute. For example, his institute has developed the antiviral drug Kagocel, one of the best-selling drugs in Russia.
According to the transnational marketing and consulting company DSM Group, in 2018 the sales of this drug reached eight billion rubles. And this is despite the fact that some doctors doubt its effectiveness. Kagocel was brought to the market after the most minimal tests, which are completely uninformative. No other studies of its effectiveness have been conducted.
Its popularity is based on marketing, the large sums that the manufacturer invests in advertising, “says the professor. Vasily Vlasov, a specialist in the field of pharmacology.
By the way, “Kagocel” is not produced by the institute itself, but by a private company, the shareholders of which are some high-ranking leaders of this virological institute, including the daughter of Gunzburg Elizabeth Tokarskaya.
At the end of March, the Health Committee of the Moscow City Hall included Kagocel in the list of drugs suitable for the prevention of coronavirus infection. However, after criticism from experts, the drug was excluded from this list.
Putin’s daughter and the elixir of youth
“My daughter got herself a new vaccine. I spoke to her recently and she is doing well, ”Putin said in an August interview to the state-run Rossiya TV channel.
It was about Ekaterina Tikhonova, who heads the National Intellectual Development Foundation, known under the abbreviated name Innopraktika. She learned about the new vaccine from her former classmate, who today is her deputy at Innopraktika, Natalia Popova.
In one of the reports shown in the summer, it was said that she was at the origins of a new vaccine and was one of the first to get herself vaccinated during a period when tests were conducted only on primates.
Popova helped the vaccine not only by recommending her to Putin’s daughter. The drug also attracted her husband Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. He became the main lobbyist for the vaccine in the Kremlin and coined the name Sputnik V.
According to Openmedia sources, Dmitriev, Popova and Gunzburg know each other for a project aimed at creating an elixir of youth, or rather at slowing down the aging process of the body.
“Our aging elite is at times taken over by strange ideas. Ten years ago, attempts were made to make the human body forever young. At that time, many academics were doing this, including Gunzburg, ”says a source in the pharmaceutical industry.
Interest in rejuvenation does not fade away. This summer, another scientist associated with the Gamaleya Institute, Professor Fazoil Ataullakhanov.
“Our body is constantly undergoing renewal processes, and in fact there are no cells that live with us from birth to death. From the point of view of physics, it is not difficult to make these processes eternal, ”he told Ogonyok magazine, noting that he and his colleagues are working on this.
Ten Billion Dollar Vaccine
The new vaccine, according to the director of the R-Pharm group Alexey Repik, whose factories will also manufacture the Sputnik V, will cost about ten dollars a dose. The vaccine must be done twice. Kirill Dmitriev does not hide his plans to cover the whole world with the vaccine and sell a billion doses. That is, we are talking about ten billion dollars.
“At the end of the year, China, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom will have the vaccine. The rest of the world will choose which of them to buy the vaccine from, ”Dmitriev told the Financial Times in July.
There is only one thing missing – to check whether the vaccine really protects the body from the coronavirus. “It has been proven to provide immunity, but it is unclear for how long. There are several dozen HIV vaccines in the world that cause an immune response, but in fact do not protect against the disease. It’s the same with hepatitis C. So we don’t know if Sputnik V will provide real protection against coronavirus, ”says the molecular biologist. Sergey Netesov, who in the past headed the Novosibirsk “Vector”.
“Russia and China, unlike the United States and Great Britain, have decided to register their vaccines after half of the trials. Of course, newspaper headlines all over the world screamed about this, and everyone wondered what kind of Russian drug it was. Dmitriev himself will not lose anything. If Sputnik V works, it will be on top. If not, then he can always say that the hostile West prohibits the sale of the Russian vaccine, ”a source in the pharmaceutical industry quoted the Openmedia.io server in October.
Thus, both the real effectiveness of the drug and the marketing art play a role. “From the point of view of PR, everything is fine. Who knew about the Gamaleya Institute before? Of course, PR alone is not enough. For the drug to be bought by someone, the test results must be positive. But personally, I believe in this vaccine, because it is actually an advanced technology, ”says the manager of the Russian analytical company RNC Pharma Nikolay Bespalov.
To see if the vaccine, named after the first space satellite, works, will have to wait until the end of the year for the first eight million doses of Sputnik V to arrive.
Author: Ondrej Soukup
Original publication at Economic newspaper