Russia on Tuesday declared itself the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine with President Vladimir Putin saying one of his daughters had been inoculated.
Dubbing the vaccine “Sputnik V” after the Soviet-era satellite that was the first launched into space, Russian officials said it provided safe, stable immunity and denounced Western attempts to undermine Moscow’s research.
Scientists in the West have raised concerns about the speed of development of Russian vaccines, suggesting that researchers might be cutting corners and coming under pressure from authorities to deliver.
The World Health Organization said any WHO stamp of approval on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate would require a rigorous safety data review.
“We are in close contact with the Russian health authorities and discussions are ongoing with respect to possible WHO pre-qualification of the vaccine,” said the UN agency’s spokesman Tarik Jasarevic in Geneva.
Putin had told a televised video conference call with government ministers, “This morning, for the first time in the world, a vaccine against the new coronavirus was registered.
“I know that it is quite effective, that it gives sustainable immunity,” he said.
The president said one of his daughters had been inoculated with the vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya research institute in coordination with the Russian defence ministry and other government bodies.
“In this sense she took part in the experiment,” Putin said, adding that she had a slight temperature after a second injection and “that’s all”.
The chief of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is financing and helping to coordinate the vaccine efforts, told reporters that Phase 3 trials on a large group of people would start on Wednesday.
Kirill Dmitriyev, who heads the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said industrial production was expected from September and that 20 countries had made “preliminary applications for over one billion doses” of the vaccine.
He said that along with foreign partners Russia was ready to manufacture 500 million doses of vaccine per year in five countries.
Dmitriyev denounced “coordinated and carefully orchestrated media attacks” designed to “discredit” Russia’s vaccine.
“We should leave politics behind and enjoy this moment,” he said. “We are not forcing this vaccine on anyone.”
‘Little detail’ available
The pandemic has seen an unprecedented mobilisation of funding and research to rush through a vaccine that can protect billions of people worldwide.
Russia has been pushing hard to quickly develop a coronavirus vaccine and said earlier this month it hoped to launch mass production within weeks and turn out “several million” doses per month by next year.
The WHO had last week urged Russia to follow established guidelines and go “through all the stages” necessary to develop a safe vaccine.
Spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters at the time that the WHO had not been officially notified of any Russian vaccine on the verge of being deployed.
Experts said they were concerned that not enough was known about Russia’s research.
“There seems to be rather little detail thus far on Russian (vaccine) candidates,” said Danny Altmann, a professor of Immunology at Imperial College London.
“The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective could exacerbate our current problems insurmountably.”
The vaccine developed by Russia is a so-called viral vector vaccine, meaning it employs another virus to carry the DNA encoding of the needed immune response into cells.
Gamaleya’s vaccine is based on the adenovirus, a similar technology to the coronavirus vaccine prototype developed by China’s CanSino.
The state-run Gamaleya institute came under fire after researchers and its director injected themselves with the prototype several months ago, with specialists criticising the move as an unorthodox and rushed way of starting human trials.
Moscow has dismissed allegations from Britain, the United States, and Canada that a hacking group linked to Russian intelligence services tried to steal information about a coronavirus vaccine from labs in the West.
With more than 897,000 confirmed infections, Russia’s coronavirus caseload is currently fourth in the world after the United States, Brazil, and India.