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Russia says it will start mass producing its leading coronavirus vaccine prototype in September.
The safety and efficacy of this vaccine has been heavily doubted, however, with its developers accused of rushing through safety trials to please the Kremlin, which is keen to win the global vaccine race.
The researchers said they trialed the vaccine on themselves to speed through human trials. A leading Russian scientific association called it a "crude violation of the very foundations of clinical research."
A top Russian official likened the vaccine race to the Space Race during the Cold War, telling CNN: "Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik's beeping. It's the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first."
Employees at Russia's biotech company BIOCAD at the country's virus research centre in Siberia on May 20, 2020.
OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images
Russia says it will start mass-producing its coronavirus vaccine next month, despite widespread reports that scientists rushed through tests and injected themselves with the prototype to speed up the process.
More than 100 vaccines are being developed around the world, but only four — from Moderna, AstraZeneca, SinoVac, and Pfizer — have entered phase-3 mass human trials, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Now Russia claims that a Russian vaccine will be first to hit the market and administered to a population. The WHO currently recognizes two Russian vaccine trials, but says they are both still in phase 2 trials.
"We are very much counting on starting mass production in September," Russian trade minister Denis Manturov told the state-run TASS news agency on Monday, referring to a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya National Research Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology.
Russia appears to see the global race for a coronavirus vaccine as a competition with the US, with the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund — which finances domestic vaccine projects — likening it to the Space Race between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik's beeping. It's the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first," Kirill Dmitriev told CNN.
However, the trial vaccine has drawn heavy skepticism from medical professionals both inside and outside Russia.
Scientists working on the Gamaleya vaccine were criticized in late May after reporting that they had taken the highly unusual step of injecting themselves with the trial vaccine in an apparent attempt to speed up human trials.
The center's director, Alexander Gintsburg, told Russian state news agency Interfax on May 22 that the vaccine appeared to work and that "everyone is safe and sound and happy."
He also said that the researchers, including himself, had injected themselves with the prototype, not to use as a test, but "to protect themselves in order to be able to work on this development amid the pandemic."
But Russia's Association of Clinical Research Organizations said the step was a "crude violation of the very foundations of clinical research, Russian law, and universally accepted international regulations," according to the Associated Press (AP).
Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on July 27, 2020.
Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images
The association added that Gamaleya was rushing through "the crazy race" to find a vaccine "hoping to please those in power," the AP reported.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also expressed concern about the pace of Russia's projects.
"I do hope that the ... Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone," Fauci said in a congressional meeting last week, according to The New York Times.
Inside Russia, state-run media and the Kremlin are peddling the narrative that Russia is pandemic success story, despite reports it is manipulating or covering up case statistics, and denying medical staff sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). President Vladimir Putin has also mocked the US response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite Russia's purported success at developing a vaccine, the US, UK, and Canada last month accused Russia of being behind attempts to hack their top coronavirus research centers "to steal valuable intellectual property."
One other vaccine in Russia, which is monitored by the WHO, is also nearing approval, according to the government.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said this week that the Vektor State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology will start mass producing its vaccine in November.
In late May, Russian health minister Mikhail Murashko had said the Vektor vaccine could be ready to go by the end of July.
But experts have poured cold water on that claim since.
"Of course, you can create a prototype vaccine during such a brief period of time," Vitaly Zverev, head of the molecular technology department at the Mechnikov Research Institute of Vaccines in Moscow, told the Russian-language network Current Time.
"But it is impossible to have it properly tested. Hence, it would be premature to say that a mass vaccination will be launched in July."
"This cannot be tested in a few weeks or even months. It is impossible to complete this colossal amount of work in four months. Some things simply cannot be sped up."
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