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Covid-19: despite challenges, Russia progresses with vaccination at home and abroad

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Russia

Kester Kenn Klomegah

President Vladimir Putin has praised the​ entire healthcare system, and particularly the hard-working team of scientists and specialists from different institutions for their efforts at research and creating a​ series of​ coronavirus vaccines for use against the coronavirus both at home and abroad. Three vaccines already registered in​ Russia, two of​ them​ Sputnik V and​ EpiVacCorona​ are produced in​ large quantities by​ Russian pharmaceutical companies and​ are currently used for​ vaccination. It is additionally planned to roll out another one – CoviVac.

Despite the​ pandemic-related challenges, the​ domestic pharmaceutical companies, in​ conjunction with research institutes, have managed to​ accomplish a​ multitude of​ objectives in​ order to​ deploy new vaccine production sites in​ a​ short amount of​ time, Putin said during a videoconference meeting focused on​ increasing the​ manufacturing capacity of​ COVID-19 vaccines and​ the​ progress of​ vaccination in​ Russia.

Unreservedly made reference to staff qualities such as consistent and effective hard-work, truly selfless work and responsible attitude, and further urged them to continue making relentless efforts in stabilising the​ spread of​ the​ coronavirus infections and​ in​ protecting the​ life and​ health of​ millions of​ people in the country.

Putin further noted that the​ implementation of​ a​ wide range of​ preventive measures, including widespread vaccination, has played a​ significant role in​ normalising the​ epidemic situation. Overall, 6.3 million Russians have taken the​ first part of​ the​ vaccine, of​ these 4.3 million have been vaccinated in​ full, that is, they have received both vaccine components.

“We can safely say, and​ the​ practical results indisputably corroborate, the​ fact that the​ Russian vaccines are absolutely safe and​ dependable. Our success is recognised abroad as​ well. The​ number of​ countries using the​ Sputnik V vaccine is expanding fast, more countries around the​ world are showing interest in​ our vaccine with 55 countries having authorised its use,” he told the meeting.

In addition, Russia now has a number of contracts with foreign manufacturers, – these are foreign manufacturers who will be producing our vaccine on​ their territory​ – have been signed for​ the​ number of​ doses needed to​ vaccinate 700 million people per year. The latest, it has signed a​ contract with an​ Indian company for​ doses to​ vaccinate 100 million people. Indisputably, working with 55 countries means a​ total population of​ 1.4 billion. There are plans to expand the​ number of​ partner countries and​ that will reach an estimated 2.5 billion people.

While Russia and its pharmaceutical companies are considering the​ dynamics of​ the​ global market and​ the​ demand for​ Russian-made vaccines, and expanding their production capacities, it equally places emphasis on domestic needs, supplying and vaccinating Russian citizens with vaccines, is an​ absolute priority. It is estimated that at​ least 60 per cent of​ all adults in​ the​ country must be vaccinated for​ complete stabilisation. This requires 69.8 million sets of​ vaccine doses. At​ any rate, there are more than 20 million Sputnik V doses, according to the Russian president, quoting his Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

In his contribution at the meeting, Minister of Industry Denis Manturov informed that under the​ plan, 12.5 million sets of​ the​ vaccine must be produced in​ March. The​ planned figure for​ April is 17 million. It is planned to​ continue building up production so as​ to​ have over 80 million of​ two-component doses by​ the​ first six months.

According to him, all these amounts will be primarily used to​ vaccinate Russian citizens. In order to​ meet the​ global demand for​ Russian vaccines, his ministry is working on scaling up the production of vaccines and on​ transferring technology abroad. It already has comprehensive agreements on​ this with manufacturers in​ 10 countries.

Healthcare Minister Mikhail Murashko informed the meeting about organisations that keep monitoring the​ virus’s mutations, including those in​ Russia. “We are analysing the​ efficiency of​ medicines for​ preventing the​ disease caused by​ various strains. This work is ongoing continuously and​ involves several agencies,” he said, and further mentioned the need to​ increase the​ speed of​ vaccination.

By​ the​ end of​ March, our healthcare facilities will receive over 6.5 million doses of​ Sputnik V. We expect that a​ total of​ some 30 million doses will be delivered in​ April and​ May. As​ of​ now, there are 4,500 stationary vaccination stations across Russia and​ plans to​ increase this figure, as​ well as​ over 1,000 mobile stations.

Participating in the meeting, Pharmstandard Chairman of​ the​ Board Viktor Kharitonin also discussed the production capability of the vaccine and pointed to the successful completion of the​ transfer of​ laboratory technology, scaled and​ fine-tuned the​ manufacturing technology abroad.

“It should be specifically pointed out that, thanks to​ our cooperation with the​ Russian Direct Investment Fund, we have started supplying the​ vaccine to​ foreign markets. We have already transferred the​ production technology to​ Kazakhstan and​ Belarus and​ continue working with other countries, including India and​ Italy. In​ Italy, Sputnik V was highly praised by​ both scientists and​ our colleagues from pharmaceutical companies,” added Kharitonin.

Taking his turn, Chairman of​ the​ Board of​ the​ R-Pharm Group Alexei Repik talked about efforts that are currently focused on​ the​ creation and​ manufacturing of​ new forms of​ the​ vaccine that will be easier to​ use and​ also to transport. He noted that it will increase the​ attractiveness of​ the vaccines on​ foreign markets, including countries with a​ hot climate: the​ Middle East, Africa and​ Latin America.

“Our factory is now producing the​ first registration batches of​ a​ promising lyophilic form of​ the​ vaccine created by​ our experts. It has proved stable at​ temperatures between +2 and​ +8 C. We are now studying its stability at​ room temperature. There are grounds to​ believe that we will succeed. This form will allow us to​ make the​ vaccine available in​ hard-to-reach regions of​ the​ country, which is especially important ahead of​ the​ spring and​ summer period,” informed Alexei Repik.

Director of​ the​ Gamaleya National Research Centre for​ Epidemiology and​ Microbiology Alexander Ginsburg also highlighted a few aspects of the vaccine production and about documents for registration. According to him, the​ Gamaleya Research Centre also addresses the​ problem of​ expanding the​ production of​ the​ Sputnik Light vaccine.

In​ addition, as​ the​ holder of​ the​ registration certificate, the​ Centre assumes all responsibility for​ quality control of​ this vaccine at​ all enterprises where it is manufactured in​ this country and​ abroad.

Moreover, the​ Centre is directly involved in​ launching contractual production that is mostly organised by​ the​ Russian Direct Investment Fund. The​ Centre has prepared the​ entire package of​ documents for​ registering the​ Sputnik Light vaccine in​ 55 countries. Considering that each country has its own regulatory system, this is not a​ fixed package of​ documents that will apply everywhere, therefore it has to​ adapt it to​ every country’s regulatory system.

He further spoke about The​ Lancet, a​ highly prestigious and​ popular medical journal, that published two articles on​ the​ results of​ scientific data and clinical trials. This provides important scientific evidence proving the​ vaccine’s efficacy, this has completely eliminated the​ Western academic community’ scepticism regarding the vaccines’ quality and​ efficacy.

Alexander Gintsburg explained a little about children’s vaccination. According to him, children must be divided into several age groups. Russian experts and specialists in​ paediatric immunology are working in this direction. He said that a vaccine has been developed, patented, and​ are currently launching clinical trials of​ Sputnik V’s intranasal form. This is a​ very gentle and​ patient-friendly form of​ vaccination for​ children, especially little children, who can be traumatised when they see a​ syringe or​ when possible side effects arise. The​ first experiments show that the​ intranasal form is completely free from any side effects.

CEO of​ the​ Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev stressed patent protection and about protecting intellectual rights for Russian made vaccines and other medical products. “Our patent protection is very strong. We submitted applications early on, much earlier than other countries, and​ thus got a​ headstart. Accordingly, the​ Gamaleya Institute owns the​ innovations that are available even at​ these foreign sites, which include over 20 partner companies in​ 10 countries,” he told the meeting.

On foreign cooperation, “Mr President, I​ would like to​ thank you, because it was your idea to​ build productive partnerships with various countries, and​ 20 manufacturers from over 10 countries responded. For​ them, it’s about vaccine safety and​ independence, and​ Russia was the​ only country to​ have come up with this offer. Thank you very much. They are very grateful to​ you for​ this,” Kirill Dmitriev said in appreciation.

Director-general of​ the​ Vektor State Research Centre of​ Virology and​ Biotechnology Rinat Maksyutov discussed various research operations. Vektor is the​ only WHO COVID-19 reference laboratory in​ Russia. It not only conducts the​ entire range of​ viral studies of​ the​ novel coronavirus, but is also monitoring its genetic mutations across the​ country on​ a​ regular basis.

“By​ now, we have found over 5,300 genetic variations across the​ genome. In​ the​ overwhelming number of​ cases, the​ replacement does not change the​ epidemiological characteristics of​ the​ virus. At​ the​ same time, we have also found over 50 variations of​ the​ British strain, three cases of​ the​ South African strain and​ over 20 unique variations of​ the​ virus that must be thoroughly studied,” he said.

According to Rinat Maksyutov, the Research Centre Vektor is studying these variations of​ the​ virus in​ accordance with a​ special algorithm. “We are studying the​ virus’s stability on​ various surfaces; we are also using unique equipment, which has no analogues throughout the​ world, to​ study the​ ability of​ the​ virus to​ be transmitted between living organisms. We have found that the​ British strain of​ the​ novel coronavirus can be effectively neutralised by​ serum taken from those who had COVID and​ those vaccinated with Sputnik V or​ EpiVacCorona,” he told the meeting.

Director-general of​ the​ Chumakov Federal Scientific Centre for​ the​ Research and​ Development of​ Immune and​ Biological Products (Russian Academy of​ Sciences) Aidar Ishmukhametov spoke about their engagement and involvement in research and production of medical products, tracing its roots to the Soviet Union.

The​ Chumakov Centre is one of​ the​ oldest facilities in​ the​ Russian Federation and​ the​ oldest vaccine developer in​ Russia. That in​ the​ 1960s, this centre’s achievements helped the​ country deal with polio. The​ centre back then developed a​ unique vaccine that supplied to​ the​ entire world, including the​ United States, Europe, Japan and​ many other countries. In​ fact, now this facility, the​ Institute of​ Poliomyelitis, is well-known around the​ world.

It is continuing this tradition. As​ of​ today, it has developed and​ produced five vaccines, including for​ tick-borne encephalitis, rabies and​ the​ yellow fever vaccine that is supplied to​ almost 50 countries, which is perhaps Russia’s biggest export in​ the​ pharmaceutical industry.

This type of​ organisation that has a​ research and​ development facility at​ its core that can outline the​ task and​ release a​ certain number of​ batches of​ the​ vaccine consisting of​ tens of​ millions [of​ doses], on​ one hand, and​ well-coordinated work with research institutes and​ the​ search for​ partners, on​ the​ other hand, is a​ very efficient model.

“We did not intend to​ work exclusively on​ the​ coronavirus vaccine. It was important to​ us to​ maintain the​ same production volume and​ supply vaccines according to​ the​ national vaccination calendar as​ well as​ deliver on​ the​ exports. So we needed to​ fit this new objective into our existing model. We inherited this research and​ development facility from the​ Soviet Union where it was a​ leader in​ this industry, and​ we are developing it,” he underlined the importance of his institution at the meeting.

CEO of​ the​ National Immunobiological Company, Rostec State Corporation, Andrei Zagorsky, however, noted that vaccine production is growing steadily. He highlighted the question of warehousing (storage),​ freezer facility and​ shipping to​ the​ regions. This is carried out in​ close cooperation with the​ manufacturing sites, as​ well as​ cargo recipients in​ the​ regions. These tasks are fulfilled on​ schedule, he said.

“We monitor the​ entire production process, especially the​ temperature, all the​ way from production, transport, acceptance to​ a​ warehouse, storage at​ the​ warehouse, to​ shipment to​ a​ recipient region. All products are transported in​ thermal containers, which can keep temperatures at​ 18 degrees below zero Celsius for​ about five days,” he added, speaking at the meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova concluded with high appreciation. The meeting ended with a clear understanding in​ what direction should be moving to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and at the same time, extend assistance to foreign countries that are in need. She, however, reiterated that, in​ a​ fairly short time, despite the​ difficulties and amid the​ challenging pandemic of​ 2020, all her colleagues have indeed accomplished something that seemed almost impossible, worked 24/7 and​ made Russia the​ leader in​ the​ production and​ use of​ vaccines, primarily,
for​ the​ public in​ Russia.

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