The Russian government claims to have stolen a march on dozens of global rivals – including the US and UK – in the race to produce a viable coronavirus vaccine, saying it would start production of a vaccine next month and begin mass immunisation by October.
The announcement came amid controversy over how Russia has rushed its two vaccine candidates through safety testing, in which researchers dose themselves as part of truncated human trials.
Russian officials previously suggested they planned to approve the main vaccine candidate by 10 August with foreign sales aimed at countries including India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia – which officials say have expressed an interest.
Numerous countries and research groups are working to produce a vaccine, including the UK, which also announced its plans to step up preparations for mass production.
The Russian announcement came even as some experts, including the World Health Organization, cautioned that any vaccines that emerges may not be the “magic bullet” that ends the pandemic.
More than 140 candidate vaccines are being tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO), including the British candidate being trialled by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, CanSino and Sinovac in China and the US biotech company Moderna.
Rival vaccines are also being developed rapidly in the US, China and elsewhere with most not likely to be tested and licensed before the end of the year at the earliest. While vaccines usually require years of testing and development, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted hugely accelerated timeline, including the US government’s Operation Warp Speed.
Experts are cautioning that even with successful candidates being approved they may not offer protection at the same level to all of the population, while scaling up of global deliveries is likely to be slow at first, leaving the virus in circulation.
The hunt for the vaccine has seen researchers apply different approaches including using existing viruses to carry a harmless section of coronavirus that can trigger an immune response, or use messenger RNA to trick the body into producing antibodies.
While much is known about the trials being undertaken elsewhere, details of the Russian vaccines under development has been more opaque, with unconfirmed reports last month suggesting that the most advanced prototype vaccine had already been made available to Russia’s elite in the midst of its outbreak.
While the mechanism for the Russian vaccine has been described, no data on its safety has been published after two groups of volunteers, comprising Russian servicemen and civilians, were given the vaccine in June at the 48th Central Research Institute of the Russian defence ministry.
According to the industry minister Denis Manturov, in an interview with Tass, most interest is focused on a vaccine being developed at the Gamaleya institute in Moscow, which is expected to begin mass production next month.
“We are very much counting on starting mass production in September,” said Manturov.
“We will be able to ensure production volumes of several hundred thousand a month, with an eventual increase to several million by the start of next year,” he said, adding that one developer is preparing production technology at three locations in central Russia.
On Saturday, the Russian health minister, Mikhail Murashko, told reporters that clinical trials had been completed and paperwork was under way for the vaccine’s registration.
The Gamaleya vaccine is a so-called vector vaccine using another virus fused with the key 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.
Another Russian vaccine, developed by Siberia-based Vektor lab, is undergoing clinical trials, and two more will begin human testing within the next two months, Murashko said.
The Gamaleya institute came under fire after researchers and directors injected themselves with the prototype months ago, with specialists criticising the move as an unorthodox and rushed way of starting human trials.
On Friday, the leading infectious disease expert in the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, said he hoped that Russia – and China – were “actually testing the vaccine” before administering them to anyone.
“I do not believe that there will be vaccines so far ahead of us that we will have to depend on other countries to get us vaccines,” he told US lawmakers.
Also offering caution over the efficacy of new vaccines was the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“A number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection. However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment – and there might never be,” he said.