Health and Science

Russia gears up for mass vaccination against coronavirus despite international skepticism

Key Points
  • Doctors and teachers would be the first to be vaccinated, Russia's health minister said, while mass vaccinations are planned for October.
  • White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has cast doubt on the approaches to coronavirus testing in Russia and China.
  • Last month, Russia was accused by officials in the U.S., Canada and Britain of trying to hack and steal coronavirus vaccine data.
A scientist prepares samples during the research and development of a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a laboratory of BIOCAD biotechnology company in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 11, 2020.
Anton Vaganov | Reuters

Russia is preparing to start a mass vaccination campaign against the coronavirus in October, the country's government has claimed.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine candidate from the Moscow-based Gamaleya Institute were complete, Russian state news agency RIA reported Saturday. Moscow has claimed the test results showed an immune response in all subjects, with no side effects or complications.

Russia has completed early-stage clinical tests with the vaccine candidate from the institute, a spokesman for Russia's RDIF sovereign wealth fund told CNBC on Monday. The country is now set to begin large-scale phase three trials this month. This phase of clinical research is the only way to show whether a vaccine is effective.

According to the World Health Organization, there are 26 candidate vaccines in clinical trials around the world, including an early-stage one from the Gamaleya Institute. But the WHO has not listed any second or third-phase trials from the country.

The laboratory behind the vaccine is now seeking regulatory approval for the drug, Murashko said according to RIA, and that this would be required before it could be used. Doctors and teachers would be the first to be vaccinated, he said, while mass vaccinations are planned for October.

Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Russia's TASS news agency Monday that the country was expecting to manufacture several million doses of Covid-19 vaccines each month by the start of 2021.

This acceleration of Russia's vaccine development could mean the country will become the first in the world to inoculate people against the virus, a huge milestone in combating a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 689,000 people worldwide.

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"It's a Sputnik moment for many people who didn't expect Russia to be the first," RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev told Abu Dhabi newspaper The National last week. RDIF has been involved in funding the country's vaccine research.

International skepticism

However, there has been much international skepticism surrounding Russia's vaccination efforts. White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, for instance, has cast doubt on the approaches to testing in Russia and China.

"I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone," Fauci said in a congressional hearing on the coronavirus crisis on Friday.

"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."

And Britain's Telegraph newspaper reported Saturday that London would likely reject Russia's Covid-19 vaccine due to doubts over the trial process. Russia has released no scientific data as to the safety and effectiveness of its vaccine.

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The WHO said in a statement that the United Nations health organization is in close contact with the Russian health authorities and are discussing the possibility for prequalification of the vaccine. The prequalification process would place the vaccine under rigorous review and require Russia to provide safety and efficacy data, the organization said. 

The prequalification process is used by the United Nations and other procurement agencies when making purchasing decisions regarding diagnostics, medicines and vaccines, according to WHO. 

Last month, Russia was accused by officials in the U.S., Canada and Britain of trying to hack and steal coronavirus vaccine data. China has also been accused by Washington of hacking into the computer systems of firms working on a Covid-19 vaccine. Moscow and Beijing have rejected the allegations, claiming they weren't backed by evidence.

Russia has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus infection in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data, with over 854,000 people having tested positive. More than 14,000 have died from Covid-19, while around 649,000 have recovered after contracting the disease.

Last month, an early-stage human trial of a vaccine candidate conducted by Oxford University and AstraZeneca indicated it was safe and produced a strong immune response, according to The Lancet medical journal.

There has also been promising data from vaccine candidates being developed by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna, as well as American drugmaker Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech.