Analysing the Russian COVID-19 Vaccine

We take a closer look at their findings
18 August 2020

Interview with 

Gordon Dougan, University of Cambridge




The coronavirus is continuing to dominate the headlines internationally; New Zealand broke its 102 day run of no local cases with the detection of a fresh outbreak mushrooming in Auckland; China claims to have detected traces of coronavirus on chicken imported from South America, triggering food safety concerns; and amidst it all, Russia announces the creation of a covid vaccine and floats a plan to start mass vaccinations within weeks. Russian President Vladimir Putin told a media conference that the new vaccine generates immunity lasting two years. Of course, announcements like these would normally be greeted with great enthusiasm, but some experts are alarmed that to have achieved what they claim to have done in such a short time, Russia must have been cutting corners, which could have consequences for safety. Chris Smith spoke to Gordon Dougan, who is a leading vaccinologist at the University of Cambridge…

Gordon - It wasn't a complete surprise, because we did know that Russia was developing a vaccine, and that they had hinted that they were moving forward into clinical trials. I guess the big surprise is some of the claims around how far they've got in the process. We all know that vaccine development takes a long time. It can take several years and even with shortcuts, two months or thereabouts is remarkable.

Chris - Do you have any knowledge of exactly what it is that they have constructed as their vaccine?

Gordon - We do know it's based upon an adenovirus. So this is a virus which is often used as a vector, and what it does, it actually a bit like a Trojan horse by bringing a component of the COVID-19 virus to present that to the human immune system.

Chris - Oh right. So it's a common cold type virus, that they've reprogrammed a bit. So it also looks a bit like COVID?

Gordon - Yeah. So what it really is, is it's a virus that would normally infect another animal, not necessarily human. When it gets into the human body, it cannot infect properly, but it can deliver a package, for example, a component of the COV-SARS-2 virus.

Chris - So what worries you then, given the headlines we've seen, given that Vladimir Putin says that they've already had approaches from 20 countries plus, who have commissioned them to supply a billion doses of this vaccine. As someone who has a long track record in successfully bringing vaccines into the clinical space, what's ringing alarm bells for you?

Gordon - Well, we've had a century of experience in developing vaccines. And what we've learned is the most important part of any vaccine is that it's safe. The second component of course, is that it protects against the disease. Safety tests themselves take time, there's a phase called preclinical, which means we do a lot of testing before the vaccine even gets into a human being. And then when it gets into a human being, we have to continue that testing and then eventually see whether the vaccine works. So the short timeline means the Russians must be compromising on safety. They cannot be absolutely sure that vaccine is going to be safe.

Chris - One commentator suggested that this, if they get it wrong, could backfire really quite seriously, because notwithstanding any damage that the vaccine itself might do, it might do damage to the image of a vaccine. And that might mean that even if people come along later with much more robust and safe vaccines, people will be very, very concerned about using them. And that may lead to poor uptake.

Gordon - Absolutely. So, as I said, safety is the key issue around vaccine development. And the danger is, that if we push forward and then create a vaccine that is already out there, and then we see these signals, it's already too late. Because you know, we then have to recall a vaccine and that would be very damaging.

Chris - The other interesting thing is that, people are questioning the ethics of what's been going on in Russia. You've got evidence that people who are involved in the trials are just testing it on themselves, testing it on family members, even one of Vladimir Putin's daughters is reputed to have received this vaccine.

Gordon - In the old day, people who developed a vaccine would often take that vaccine first, there was a tradition associated with that, but we've never considered immunising a family member. And so what we've developed again over the last century is a very strong, ethical framework, which in every single step in vaccine development, we adhere to ethical principles. So any straying, any movement away from that ethical framework that we accept and value is going to potentially lead to problems, even if the vaccine works.

Chris - Do you think we're putting perhaps too much emphasis on the role of a vaccine here? People are pinning too many hopes on a vaccine. Because if you look at the numbers for a rival virus like measles. Last year, measles caused about 10 million cases around the world. There are, I looked up the numbers of deaths, 150,000 people that we know of, died of measles last year. And there's a very good vaccine that prevents measles. Are we at risk of finding ourselves in the same situation with COVID as we do with measles?

Gordon - I think we could end up in that situation. Measles is a great example. I was in Madagascar last year and the whole hospital was full of vaccine preventable illnesses like measles. And so there's a problem in getting vaccines out there to either people who can't afford them and can't access them, or people who simply don't want to take vaccines. That's a challenge in itself, and what we really need to do with the COVID situation, is ask the question: If we're going to introduce a vaccine, who do we vaccinate? When do we vaccinate? And build up a program, which really starts off with a targeted vaccination program, then moves into more broader challenges of, would you vaccinate a whole population, for example.


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