(Bloomberg) — Scores of Russia’s business and political elite have been given early access to an experimental vaccine against COVID-19, according to people familiar with the effort, as the country races to be among the first to develop an inoculation.
Top executives at companies including aluminum giant United Co. Rusal, as well as billionaire tycoons and government officials began getting shots developed by the state-run Gamaleya Institute in Moscow as early as April, the people said. They declined to be identified as the information isn’t public.
The Gamaleya vaccine, financed by the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund and backed by the Defense Ministry, last week completed a phase 1 trial involving military personnel. The institute hasn’t published results for the study, which involved about 40 people, but has begun the next stage of testing with a larger group.
Gamaleya’s press office couldn’t be reached immediately for comment. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who recovered from COVID-19 after being hospitalized with the virus in May, said he doesn’t know the names of anyone who’s received the institute’s vaccine.
Asked on a conference call with reporters on Monday if President Vladimir Putin had taken it, Peskov said: “It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to use an uncertified vaccine on the head of state,” adding that he wasn’t aware of other officials trying it.
Peskov’s comments followed a Health Ministry statement that said only participants in Gamaleya’s trials are currently eligible for the jabs.
While the new shots are “safe” because they’re based on proven vaccines for other diseases, their effectiveness has yet to be determined, according to Sergei Netesov, a former executive at Vector, a state-run virology center in Novosibirsk, Siberia, that’s also working on an inoculation.
“Those who take it do so at their own risk,” Netesov said.
Russia has reported more than 750,000 cases of COVID-19, the fourth-largest total in the world, and Gamaleya’s program is on a faster track than many developers in the West. RDIF chief Kirill Dmitriev said last week phase 3 trials will start Aug. 3 and include thousands of people in Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the vaccine distributed nationally as early as September. Western researchers typically run phase 3 trials for months to better understand safety and effectiveness.
Gamaleya’s candidate is a so-called viral vector vaccine based on human adenovirus — a common cold virus — fused with the 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.
Canada was among the countries — along with the U.S. and U.K. — that last week accused Russian government-backed hackers of trying to steal secrets of their vaccine research. Russian officials deny the allegations.
The program under which well-connected Russians have been given the chance to volunteer for doses of the experimental vaccine is legal but kept under wraps to avoid a crush of potential participants, according to a researcher familiar with the effort. He said several hundred people have been involved. Bloomberg confirmed dozens who have had the shots but none would allow their names to be published.
It’s not clear how participants are selected and they aren’t part of the official studies, though they are monitored and their results logged by the institute.
Dmitriev of the RDIF said he and his family had taken the shots and noted that a significant number of other volunteers have also been given the opportunity. He declined to provide further details. The Gamaleya Institute said it vaccinated its director, as well as the team working on the trial, when it started. In May, state-controlled Sberbank recruited volunteers among employees to take the jabs.
One senior executive who’s been inoculated said he experienced no side effects. He said the health risks are worth being able to resume normal life, both personal and professional. Other takers reported experiencing fevers and muscle aches after getting the shots.
Several managers in the Moscow offices of Rusal, which relies on Gamaleya’s Ebola vaccine to maintain operations in the West African country of Guinea, have already taken the institute’s COVID-19 shots, people familiar with the matter said. Fertilizer maker PhosAgro PJSC is among the corporations who’ve been invited to follow suit, other people said. Spokespeople for Rusal and Phosagro declined to comment.
Some executives at major companies said they turned down the offer on health concerns. One tycoon said he decided against participating after his doctor told him it would take at least a year to assess the new vaccine’s risks.
Initial results from CanSino’s trial showed its adenovirus-based vaccine had a diminished effect in some people who had a pre-existing immunity to that pathogen. RDIF’s Dmitriev said researchers in Russia are testing two different types of adenovirus vectors in order to reduce the chances of pre-existing immunity reducing the cocktail’s effectiveness.
Gamaleya chief Alexander Ginzbur said he wasn’t aware of any government officials or business leaders taking his institute’s vaccine, according to Interfax.
—With assistance from Irina Reznik and Andrey Biryukov.
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Contributor: Stepan Kravchenko, Yuliya Fedorinova and Ilya Arkhipov / Bloomberg