Moscow: Scores of members of Russia’s business and political elite have been given early access to an experimental vaccine against Covid-19, according to people familiar with the effort, as the country races to be among the first to develop an inoculation.
Top executives at companies including aluminum giant United Co. Rusal, as well as billionaire tycoons and government officials began getting shots developed by the state-run Gamaleya Institute in Moscow as early as April, the people said. They declined to be identified as the information isn’t public.
The Gamaleya vaccine, financed by the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund and backed by the military, last week completed a phase 1 trial involving Russian military personnel. The institute hasn’t published results for the study, which involved about 40 people, but has begun the next stage of trials with a larger group.
Gamaleya’s press office couldn’t be reached by phone Sunday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t respond to a text message asking whether President Vladimir Putin or others in his administration have had the shots. A government spokesman couldn’t immediately comment.
Russia has reported more than 750,000 cases of Covid-19, the fourth-largest total in the world, and Gamaleya’s program is on a faster track than many rivals in the West. RDIF chief Kirill Dmitriev said last week phase 3 trials will start Aug. 3 and include thousands of people in Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the vaccine distributed nationally as early as September. Western researchers typically run phase 3 trials for months to better understand safety and effectiveness.
Gamaleya’s candidate is a so-called viral vector vaccine based on human adenovirus — a common cold virus — fused with the spike protein of SARS CoV-2 to stimulate an immune response. It is similar to a vaccine being developed by China’s CanSino Biologics which is already in phase 2 trials with plans for more in Canada.
Canada was among the countries — along with the U.S. and U.K. — that last week accused Russian government-backed hackers of trying to steal secrets of their Covid-19 vaccine efforts. Russian officials deny the allegations.
The program under which members of Russia’s business and political elite have been given the chance to volunteer for doses of the experimental vaccine is legal but kept under wraps to avoid a crush of potential participants, according to a researcher familiar with the effort. He said several hundred people have been involved. Bloomberg confirmed dozens who have had the shots but none would allow their names to be published.
It’s not clear how participants are selected and they aren’t part of the official studies, though they are monitored and their results logged by the institute. Patients usually get the shots — two are needed to produce an immune response Gamaleya says will last for about two years — at a Moscow clinic connected to the institute. Participants aren’t charged a fee and sign releases that they know the risks involved.
Dmitriev of the RDIF said he and his family had taken the shots and noted that a significant number of other volunteers have also been given the opportunity. He declined to provide further details. The Gamaleya Institute said it vaccinated its director, as well as the team working on the trial, when it started. In May, state-controlled Sberbank recruited volunteers among employees to test the institute’s vaccine.
One top executive who had the vaccine said he experienced no side effects. He said he decided to risk taking the experimental shots in order to be able to live a normal life and have business meetings as usual. Other participants have reported fever and muscle aches after getting the shots.
At Rusal, which had a relationship with Gamaleya from when it worked on an Ebola vaccine that the company sought to use for its operations in Guinea, many top executives have had the shots, according to people familiar with the effort. Fertilizer maker PhosAgro PJSC was also offered an opportunity, according to people familiar with situation, and is still considering it. Spokespeople for Rusal and Phosagro declined to comment.
Some executives at major companies said they turned down the offer as the vaccine still needs to be tested and isn’t yet confirmed to be safe. One tycoon said he decided against participating after his doctor told him it would take at least a year to understand the risks.
Initial results from CanSino’s trial showed its adenovirus-based vaccine had a diminished effect in some people who had a pre-existing immunity to that pathogen. RDIF’s Dmitriev said researchers in Russia are testing two different types of adenovirus vectors in order to reduce the chances of pre-existing immunity reducing the vaccine’s effectiveness.
“The current situation with the vaccine looks like a race and sufficient clinical testing hasn’t been done,” Sergey Shulyak, chief executive officer at Moscow-based consulting company DSM Group, said on Friday.-Bloomberg
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