Surging coronavirus cases and deaths in Russia show the Delta variant’s havoc on a largely unvaccinated population

russia covid tests
People wait to get tested for COVID-19 in Omsk, Russia on June 28, 2021.

  • Russia’s daily coronavirus cases have more than doubled in the last month.
  • Deaths are climbing, too, as the Delta variant becomes more widespread.
  • It’s a lesson in what happens when Delta strikes a mostly unvaccinated country, experts said.
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Nearly a year after becoming the first nation to authorize a coronavirus shot, Russia has fallen behind in the global vaccine rollout. Just 15% of its population has received at least one dose.

So when Russia identified its first cases of the Delta variant in May, the threat loomed larger than in highly vaccinated countries like Israel, the US, or the UK.

In the last month, Russia’s daily coronavirus cases have more than doubled, from around 8,600 to around 19,500. Deaths have ticked up 54% during the same time, from around 375 per day to 575, according to Our World in Data, a research project from the University of Oxford. (It’s possible that these tallies are undercounts, given past discrepancies between Russia’s official COVID-19 death toll and its sharp increase in mortality during the pandemic.)

At the same time, Delta has come to represent around 88% of Russia’s coronavirus cases, according to GISAID, a global database that collects coronavirus genomes.

“Probably lax use of personal protective measures – like mask use, social distancing, avoiding indoor gatherings, and so forth – is part of the problem, but the Delta variant is really the core part of it,” Davidson Hamer, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Insider.

Delta is the most transmissible coronavirus variant to date, and may be deadlier than its predecessors. An analysis from Public Health England found that Delta was associated with a 60% increased risk of household transmission compared with the Alpha variant discovered in the UK, though more recent estimates suggest the difference is closer to 40%. The Alpha variant is already about 50% more transmissible than the original strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers in Scotland also found that getting infected with the Delta variant doubled the risk of hospital admission relative to Alpha, though vaccines lower that risk. (Previous studies have suggested that the Alpha variant may be 30 to 70% deadlier than the original strain.)

Experts say Delta’s spread makes it all more imperative for countries to get residents vaccinated as quickly as possible. Dozens of other nations, including New Zealand, Pakistan, and Venezuela, still have vaccination rates below 15%.

“Given the increased impact of the Delta variant, it’s likely that around 85% of a population will need to be vaccinated into order to cross the herd immunity threshold,” Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, told Insider. “That’s going to be difficult to achieve in many settings.”

Russia is struggling with vaccine skepticism

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Ilya Bachurin receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Moscow, Russia on June 25, 2021.

The Russian government reported vaccine shortages in some areas of the country on Friday, but for the most part it doesn’t suffer from a lack of supply. The country has four domestically made vaccines, the most widely available of which, Sputnik V, has been distributed to the public since December.

But Russia is contending with vaccine hesitancy.

Its approval process for Sputnik V raised red flags last summer when Russia’s health agency cleared the vaccine for distribution before it had completed late-stage clinical trials – and after just 38 people had received the shot. By February, an interim analysis published in The Lancet found that Sputnik V was around 92% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. Sputnik V developers said Tuesday that the shot is also around 90% effective against the Delta variant – but Hamer said to take that with a grain of salt.

“The Sputnik vaccine is an adenovirus vector vaccine, like AstraZeneca and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and there’s some evidence that these are a little less effective against some of these more seriously mutated variants of concern, like the South African strain and then now Delta,” he said.

A recent poll from the mobile app Doctor’s Manual found that one-third of Russian doctors still aren’t sure about the effectiveness of Russia’s COVID-19 shots.

“One of the key aspects to building vaccine confidence is openness and transparency around effectiveness and safety,” Head said. “Those attributes are not exactly to the fore in Russia, and perhaps they are suffering from low uptake as a result.”

Russian authorities have tried to boost vaccination rates by offering incentives like grocery items or lottery tickets, but the nation still fell short of its goal to vaccinate 30 million people by mid-June.

So as of last week, vaccines are mandatory for certain service workers in Russia, including hairdressers, taxi drivers, and teachers. They can be suspended without pay if they refuse.

“The same approach is being taken a lot of places to try and enforce people to get the vaccines,” Hamer said. “But in Russia in particular, there may be some people that will be resistant to that – they don’t want to be forced to do things they don’t want to do.”

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Putin wants to organize ‘vaccine tourism’ in Russia for foreigners to get the Sputnik V COVID-19 jab

vladimir putin russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia March 17, 2021.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he wants tourists to visit Russia to get the new Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The Sputnik V is still under review by the World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency.
  • Russia is currently reporting nearly 9,000 new COVID-19 cases per day.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to encourage “vaccine tourism,” where foreign citizens can visit the country to get a free Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

“There is widespread practice where business people and heads of companies come specifically to Russia to get a jab against the coronavirus,” Putin told the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Moscow Times reported.

He added that he wanted “to be able to organize the conditions for foreign citizens to come to Russia and get vaccinated on a commercial basis.”

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, the organization that’s promoting Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, said on Twitter on Friday that it would be able to launch vaccine tourism by July 2021.

The country is advocating for the Sputnik V, but the vaccine is still under review by the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer “MRNA vaccines” that are popular in the US, the Sputnik V is a “viral vector vaccine” akin to the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.

According to the Moscow Times‘ COVID-19 case tracker, Russia is currently reporting around 9,000 new COVID-19 cases per day.

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India has authorized the Sputnik V shot. Russia says this mean its COVID-19 vaccine is now approved for 40% of the world’s population.

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An elderly resident receives a dose of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine in Gaza City.

  • India has authorized Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine for use on its population.
  • Russia says this means the vaccine has been approved for use in 40% of the world’s population.
  • India is currently battling record cases of the coronavirus.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

India has authorized Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

The news was confirmed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad, announced that India approved the vaccine for use.

The RDIF says this means that Sputnik V is now authorized for use for 3 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population. India’s population is the second largest in the world, with about 1.4 billion people.

India is already using two vaccines: the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and another made by Indian firm Bharat Biotech.

Interim analysis of phase-3 data published in The Lancet in February found that Russia’s vaccine is 91.6% effective. Russia has been giving it to its population since December.

India’s coronavirus cases have been reaching record highs, and the country is looking to increase its vaccination rate as it battles a surge.

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The elusive oligarch making Russian COVID-19 vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ criticized the EU for vaccine nationalism

Sputnik V
Russia’s vaccine is now set to go global, with plans for Sputnik V to be used in one in 10 vaccinations worldwide.

  • Dmitry Morozov of pharmaceutical Biocad is the oligarch behind Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Sputnik V is now being rolled out worldwide, with plans to use it in one in 10 global vaccinations.
  • However, it faces hurdles in the EU and US as well as Russia with reluctance and supply bottlenecks.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In Russia, the name Sputnik is associated with innovation, progress, and one of the greatest successes in Soviet history.

When Sputnik 1 became the first human object to reach Earth’s orbit in 1957, Americans watched in amazement.

Over 60 years later, Sputnik is taking the world by storm again, this time as Russia’s flagship COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V.

Mass production started in September and, despite Russians initially being divided about its potential efficacy, it’s now been rolled out across the country.

Russia’s vaccine is set to go global, with plans for Sputnik V to be used in one in 10 vaccinations worldwide and particularly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Vladimir Putin was vaccinated against Covid-19 with Sputnik V, partly to coax those Russians who remain hesitant to go and get the jab.

Dmitry Morozov, an elusive oligarch who heads pharmaceutical company Biocad, is the man behind Sputnik V.

The pharmaceutical company behind the vaccine

Sputnik V is still viewed with a fair degree of skepticism especially in the EU and the US.

Earlier this month, a top official of the European Medicines Agency said approving the vaccine too early would be “somewhat comparable to Russian roulette.”

The vaccine’s official Twitter account then demanded a public apology, saying the official’s comments “raise serious questions about possible political interference in the ongoing EMA review.”

However, Russia is also struggling with supply bottlenecks and according to information from an independent pollster reported by Reuters, over 60% of Russians are unwilling to be vaccinated with Sputnik V.

Biocad is a well-known and well-connected name in the pharmaceutical industry and has been producing drugs for HIV and cancer for years.

US-based Pfizer, which is producing its own vaccine together with BioNTech, was even interested in acquiring Biocad.

Morozov owns 30% of the company and, in September, the company established one of Russia’s most modern production facilities in Zelenograd, north of Moscow.

The company employs 2,500 employees and has 1,500 people working on Sputnik V alone.

The team is also developing a drug for COVID-19 lung disease.

A camera team from Spiegel TV got a rare glimpse into the production of the vaccine, which revealed high levels of security at the factory in St Petersburg.

Complexity inhibits production

According to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, 10 million doses of Sputnik V have been produced so far.

However, many more doses are needed to vaccinate Russia and meet global demand.

Vladimir Putin
Russia has approved two other homemade vaccines, CoviVac and EpiVacCorona.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Sputnik V is a vector-based vaccine.

This means fragments of the genetic material of the coronavirus are placed in attenuated viruses like adenoviruses.

The adenoviruses deliver genetic information from the coronavirus into the human body.

The body’s cells then respond and produce the virus’s protein, which the immune system can recognize and for which it can produce the body’s required defense substances.

With Sputnik V, however, two different adenoviruses are found in each of the required two doses, administered three weeks apart.

While this makes the vaccine more effective, it also increases the complexity of production.

According to data published in The Lancet, Sputnik V is just under 92% effective and so is roughly as effective as the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

Morozov finds the EU countries’ hesitation baffling and has spoken about vaccine nationalism and bureaucracy in the EU, according to World Today News.

In addition to Sputnik V, Russia has approved two other homemade vaccines, CoviVac and EpiVacCorona.

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Russia plans to vaccinate 1 in 10 people worldwide this year with the Sputnik vaccine, a top official said

russia coronavirus vaccine sputnik v vladimir putin thumb 2x1
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • Russia wants 700 million people to be vaccinated with Sputnik V this year, a top official said.
  • India, China, and South Korea will be the biggest producers, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment fund said.
  • Russia’s Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine has been approved in more than 40 countries so far.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russia plans to immunize nearly one in 10 people on the planet this year with its Sputnik V vaccine, a top official said.

“We have capacity to provide the vaccine to 700 million people outside Russia this year,” Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), told Bloomberg Wednesday.

The state-run fund, founded in 2011, supported the development of Sputnik V and is in charge of its roll-out to foreign countries.

“The biggest producers will be India, China, and South Korea,” Dmitriev said, adding that the RDIF has production agreements in 10 countries.

He said current output levels of the shot were “substantial,” but Russia is banking on an “exponential growth” in domestic production to increase the number of shots.

According to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, more than 5 million people have been vaccinated with Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, which studies suggest is more than 90% effective.

Dmitriev told Bloomberg that between 40 and 50 million people around the world should get Sputnik V by late June. He didn’t explain why demand for the shot would increase so quickly after that.

Read more: Shipping the COVID-19 vaccines is creating huge business opportunities for previously unknown players – here are 10 companies that could become household names

So far, Russia’s vaccine has been approved in more than 40 countries across Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many of these countries don’t have access to the shots made by Western firms such as Moderna and Pfizer.

Dmitriev told Insider on February 2 that Sputnik V probably wouldn’t be available in the US or UK in the near future. He said he was only moderately interested in sending it to Europe.

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Russia has struck deals to supply its vaccine to over 40 countries as poorer nations struggle to access Western shots

Sputnik V
An Argentine nurse reaching for a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine during the first stage of the mass-vaccination campaign in El Palomar, Argentina, on February 18.

  • Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been approved in more than 40 countries, its makers said.
  • Many have little access to shots made by Western firms such as Pfizer and Moderna.
  • An expert told Insider that Russia stepping in would give it a geopolitical advantage.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is gaining ground in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.

More than 40 countries have reached deals with the makers of the vaccine, many of which have little ability to access the in-demand shots made by Western companies that are powering vaccination drives in the US and Europe.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, the body that backed the vaccine and handles its marketing, listed the nations in a press release Wednesday.

They are:

  • Europe: Russia, Belarus, Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary, Armenia, Montenegro, San Marino, Moldova.
  • Asia: Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Syria, Mongolia, Sri Lanka.
  • Americas: Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, Guatemala.
  • Africa and Middle East: Algeria, Angola, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Republic of Guinea, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Bahrain, Lebanon, Gabon, Egypt, Ghana.

The vaccine is also approved by the Palestinian Authority and by an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina called the Srpska Republic, the press release said.

Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the RDIF, told Insider on February 2 that he had little interest in seeing the vaccine used in the US and only a moderate interest in sending it to Europe.

Outside these markets, however, there is a wide field. Beyond the US and Western Europe, there are relatively few doses available from vaccine makers such as AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson.

Nations including the US, Canada, and the UK have ordered enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times over, prompting accusations of hoarding. They are also getting their doses sooner.

A mechanism intended to provide access to the poorest countries, the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, has been slow to deliver the vaccines. The first ones reached Africa on Monday.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University who is director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told Insider in an interview that the distribution of doses was obviously unfair.

“What should be a politically neutral scientific lifesaving medical resource is being divvied up around the world, according to political and geostrategic spheres of influence,” he said.

This has created a vacuum in poorer countries.

The RDIF makes no secret of its intentions. “Our priority is the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, those countries who are very eager to procure Sputnik,” Dmitriev told the Saudi-backed outlet Arab News in an interview on January 18.

“Russia is selling to desperate people,” Gostin said. “Governments realize that people are dying, that [COVID-19] is absolutely shattering their economies, and that they’re losing public trust.”

“If it was an informed and competitive market, countries could choose between a number of equally effective or more effective vaccines,” Gostin said. “They probably wouldn’t take the Russian one.”

The shot has been shown to be highly effective in clinical trials, with 91.6% efficacy. But by then, the shot was mired in mistrust because the Russian government decided to start using the shot on its population months before the trials were finished.

“Once a country has blatantly violated all of the scientific and ethical rules about deploying a vaccine, it’s hard to regain trust, at least in people who have a choice,” Gostin said.

“They’ve got a choice between doing nothing or giving their country some hope. And the Russian vaccine represents hope.”

Some of the countries gotten doses already.

Argentina leads the way in terms of number of Sputnik V vaccines administered in Latin America, where the vaccine is making headway. It had already administered more than 270,000 first doses and 45,000 second doses in January, Reuters reported on January 28. It has ordered 20 million doses of the vaccine.

Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay have also received some doses and are expecting more.

Mexico Sputnik V vaccination
A resident exercising after receiving the Sputnik V vaccine on Wednesday in Mexico city, Mexico.

The vaccine is also gaining ground in Europe, particularly among Eastern European countries, which are historically closer to Russia.

Serbia’s prime minister received a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in December, the BBC reported on February 10.

The country has vaccinated about 1.5 million of its people with a combination of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, China’s Sinovac shot, and Sputnik V. Within that figure it was not clear how many were Sputnik jabs.

“We don’t care as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told the BBC on February 10 about vaccines’ origins.

The small European nations of San Marino and Montenegro have also received a couple of thousand doses each of Sputnik V.

Some European countries have expressed interest in the vaccine but appear to be waiting for the influential European Medicines Agency to give its approval. Countries can move without EMA approval but tend not to.

The EMA announced it was starting a rolling review of the Sputnik V vaccine on Thursday.

Frustrated with the delays, some of the EU member states have decided not to wait for the EMA. Hungary was the first member state to splinter from the bloc.

“Every day that we would spend waiting for Brussels, we would lose a hundred Hungarian lives,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian radio, The Irish Times reported on February 14. “I don’t trust a [vaccine] analysis in Brussels more than I do in a Hungarian one.”

As of Thursday, Hungary had administered 19,582 doses, according to European Center for Disease Prevention and Control data.

Slovakia followed suit. It has purchased 2 million doses of Sputnik V and received 200,000 doses of the vaccine on Wednesday.

“It is right to buy the Russian vaccine, as COVID-19 does not know anything about geopolitics,” Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic said, The Moscow Times reported on Monday.

The former Soviet countries Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have also started administering Sputnik V.

A Kazakh health official receiving a dose of Sputnik V on February 1 in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Russia has proved eager to capitalize on the publicity opportunities that its vaccine distribution offers, often with some theatrics.

The scene is practically the same in several countries. Journalists are invited to airport runways to witness the offloading of crates of vaccine, stamped with the Sputnik V and the RDIF logo or draped with a Russian flag.

Here is Paraguay:

And here is Slovakia:

Africa could have been a more difficult sell for the Russian vaccine, as the continent has a close relationship with the Chinese government, which has invested heavily in infrastructure development in Africa.

China has been slow to deliver vaccines there, however, and the African Union has already secured 3 million doses from Russia, which are due to arrive in May.

They will come at a price. The RDIF had announced that the vaccine would be “two or more times cheaper” than mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer’s. But the price, at just under $10 a shot, ended up being far more than what the AU is paying for shots from AstraZeneca ($3) or Pfizer ($6.75), the Financial Times reported last week.

Algeria started vaccinating with Sputnik V on January 30, and Egypt gave the vaccine emergency-use authorization on February 24.

In the Middle East, Iran started vaccinating with Sputnik V on February 9. The first dose was administered to Iran’s health minister’s son to help ease public mistrust of the vaccine, Al Jazeera reported.

The United Arab Emirates gave emergency approval to the vaccine on January 21, before the late-stage trial results were published.

The Palestinian Authority has also administered some doses of the shot, after Russia sent 1,000 doses of Sputnik V and the UAE a further 20,000 doses of Sputnik V.

Gaza Sputnik V
Health workers next to boxes of Sputnik V vaccine doses from the UAE upon the arrival of a truckload in the Gaza Strip on February 21.

For Gostin, the health expert, geopolitical advantage is not the only driver of Russia’s strategy.

“This is kind of a way of demonstrating that Russia’s technology prowess is the equal to that of the West,” Gostin told Insider.

“It’s no accident that it was called Sputnik, because it’s really is very reminiscent of the race to the moon with the United States.

“The truth is that you’ve got Russia playing politics with vaccines, trying to get a geostrategic advantage and bolstering their image abroad. Then you’ve got Europe, the US, the UK, and Canada that are hoarding vaccines and robbing lower-income countries.

“I don’t know that leaders of Europe and the US can look themselves in the mirror and feel any kind of ethical superiority.”

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With millions of vaccine doses, Russia is showing off a different kind of power in Latin America

sputnik v bolivia russia coronavirus vaccine distribution
Workers unload containers of Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at the International Airport of El Alto, Bolivia, January 28, 2021.

  • Russia has pledged to distribute millions of doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to countries in Latin America.
  • The deliveries are a demonstration of Moscow’s “soft power,” building influence and relationships through non-military and non-coercive means.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

For the Kremlin, the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine is an opportunity to win over the “hearts and minds” of people in faraway places – including in Mexico where it has pledged to send 24 million doses.

So says Victor Jeifets, a professor of Latin American studies at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, who describes this as a form of “soft power.”

“Sending Sputnik to Latin America is a chance to demonstrate that Russia can be a country that is not sending ideology or arms for a regime, but rather, is sending medicine that is necessary for surviving,” he said.

The Russian government has pledged to distribute the vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology to at least a dozen countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and Mexico.

Historically, Soviet Russia was interested in exporting its ideology to like-minded governments, Jeifets said. But now, Russia wants to reach out to more conservative leaders, like those of Colombia and Paraguay, who are in talks to receive shipments, Jeifets said.

Argentina President Alberto Fernandez Sputnik V vaccine vaccination
Argentine President Alberto Fernandez receives a dose of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at a hospital in Buenos Aires, January 21, 2021.

Mexico, meanwhile, cannot be picky about where it gets its vaccines. The country began distributing 200,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine on February 24, an important lifeline as the country’s health officials have struggled to quickly receive and distribute doses from labs abroad.

In December, Mexico and Chile became the first two countries in Latin America to receive vaccines, with shipments from Germany-based BioNTech. But health authorities in Mexico, which has also received vaccines from China-based Sinovac Biotech, have since been criticized for confusion and inefficiency in their distribution. (Chile is on track to inoculate 80% of its population by June.)

Mexican health authorities, initially, coordinated distribution nationally, but appeared at the last minute to punt responsibility to state governments with little warning or preparation, said Malaquías López-Cervantes, a professor of public health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Even as some states have begun to give vaccines to the general population, many doctors and nurses in public hospitals haven’t gotten shots, and health workers in private facilities have been largely ignored.

“My perception is that the federal government is making an effort that should be recognized, but there has also been terrible discoordination,” López-Cervantes said.

Mexico City Sputnik V vaccine vaccination
Medical personnel immunize adults 60 years and older with the Sputnik V vaccine in Bosque de Tláhuac, Mexico City, February 26, 2021.

Many in Mexico who’ve already received the Sputnik vaccine say it’s a huge relief.

Sofia Avila Velasco, 68, was one of the first people in Mexico to receive a dose of the Sputnik vaccine on February 24 at a school in Mexico City’s southern borough of Xochimilco, which started with people over 60.

Avila Velasco said she’s been stuck at home – gaining weight, getting older and becoming consumed by anxiety. So, the shot, she said, means a lot.

“I feel calm,” she said.

Susana Balcazar, 62, arrived at about midday to the same site and waited for about two hours under large tents. She was the 2,149th person in line, she said.

She was glad to get a shot, she said, but was fully aware that only a relative few in the country have had that opportunity.

“This isn’t an instant cure for the entire population,” she said. “But we have to do our part to prevent the virus from becoming more aggressive.”

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Russia approved a coronavirus vaccine before confirming it was safe and effective. Experts say the nation’s risky bet paid off.

russia coronavirus vaccine sputnik v vladimir putin
Left: Russian president Vladimir Putin. Right: Doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.

  • Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, called Sputnik V, is 91.6% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, according to a peer-reviewed analysis published Tuesday.
  • The country approved its vaccine in August, before conducting late-stage clinical trials.
  • Experts worried the controversial approach might overlook potentially dangerous side effects — but the new results indicate that Russia’s risky bet may have paid off.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Russia became the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine in August and start distributing shots in early December. Now it has some reliable data that those vaccines may be about as effective as those authorized for emergency use in the US and UK.

Unlike the US or UK, Russia approved its vaccine – called Sputnik V – before conducting phase 3 trials. These late-stage trials typically evaluate a medical treatment in tens of thousands of people to determine how well it works, ensure that it’s safe, and uncover any side effects.

When Russia approved Sputnik V for distribution, only 38 people had received the vaccine in clinical trials. All of them produced antibodies, and side effects were mostly mild – including elevated temperatures and headaches. That research had not undergone peer review, though.

As Sputnik V was distributed to frontline healthcare workers in December, medical experts warned that the data was insufficient to determine whether the vaccine was safe and effective. Some scientists suggested that the vaccine approval may have been rushed for political reasons.

But Russia’s risk seems to be paying off. An interim analysis of phase 3 trials published in The Lancet on Tuesday suggests that Sputnik V is 91.6% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19.

“I think everything has been done perfectly and this moment is in some ways a vindication moment,” Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), told Insider in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. The RDIF is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, and has overseen and financed the development of Sputnik V.

Dr. Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at the UK’s University of Leicester, told Insider the nation’s risky approach “has been justified to some extent now.”

Russia plowed forward on vaccinations, despite blowback

russia coronavirus vaccine
Medical workers prepare to draw blood from volunteers participating in a coronavirus vaccine trial at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia on July 15, 2020.

Sputnik V is given in two doses. Each dose relies on a different adenovirus – relatively harmless viruses associated with the common cold – to deliver a gene that codes for the coronavirus’ spike protein, which helps it attach to and invade cells. In theory, this should train the immune system to produce antibodies that ward off symptomatic disease.

The Gamaleya Institute in Moscow and the Russian Ministry of Defence developed the vaccine in tandem.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on August 11 that the country’s health agency had approved the new vaccine following phase 1 and 2 clinical trials. Some virus experts feared that any severe side effects missed in those early trials could undermine public trust in other vaccines, too.

“This is a reckless and foolish decision. Mass vaccination with an improperly tested vaccine is unethical. Any problem with the Russian vaccination campaign would be disastrous both through its negative effects on health, but also because it would further set back the acceptance of vaccines in the population,” Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said in a statement distributed by the UK Science Media Centre.

Despite these concerns, Russia’s health ministry began producing batches of the vaccine in August. By December, the country was offering its first doses to essential workers like teachers and healthcare professionals.

“We registered it in August why? Because we know it’s a safe human adenoviral platform tested for decades. It’s very different from an mRNA vaccine that has not been tested long term at all,” Dmitriev said. “So we do it and we give it only to high risk personnel who wants to take it. And therefore already in September, we were able to save people, protect lives, and to create this basically safety net of some of the high risk personnel.”

Phase 3 trials were ongoing at the time, but it would be months before they produced reliable results.

‘Good news’ from phase 3

A medical specialist holds a vial of Sputnik V in Moscow, Russia on January 18, 2021.

In November, Russia announced that preliminary data from phase 3 trials showed that its vaccine was 92% effective at preventing COVID-19. But the data was based on just 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases, split between the group of participants that had been vaccinated and the group that had received a placebo, according to a press release. It had not yet undergone peer review.

The peer-reviewed analysis published Tuesday, however, was based on a group of nearly 15,000 people who received the Sputnik V doses. Of that group, only 16 people had confirmed COVID-19 cases 21 days after their first dose, compared to 62 out of 4,902 people in the placebo group. None of the vaccinated people had moderate or severe symptoms.

The phase 3 trial relied on participants to self-report any symptoms in order to test and identify new cases post-vaccination. But researchers still don’t know how effective Sputnik V is at preventing asymptomatic infection or transmission. The US is missing the same data for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticized for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency,” British virologists Ian Jones and Polly Roy wrote in an editorial accompanying the new study on Tuesday. “But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, called the results “good news.”

“We need all the safe effective vaccines we can get,” he wrote on Twitter.

sputnik v bolivia russia coronavirus vaccine distribution
Workers offload containers transporting the first batch of Sputnik V at the International Airport of El Alto, Bolivia on January 28, 2021.

Sixteen foreign countries or sovereign states have already approved Russia’s shots: Belarus, Argentina, Bolivia, Serbia, Algeria, Palestine, Venezuela, Paraguay, Turkmenistan, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Guinea, and Tunisia.

Dmitriev said he expects Sputnik V to be registered in 25 nations by the end of next week, but applying for regulatory approval in the US and UK isn’t a priority.

Andrew Dunn, Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce, Sinéad Baker, and Susie Neilson contributed reporting.

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AstraZeneca will work with the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to test a combined shot. This could make people more immune, and for a longer period of time, it said.

covid vaccine
A photo illustration show a syringe. Argentina was selected to test a vaccine against COVID-19, it is estimated that the clinical phases will begin in August.

  • The COVID-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford will be combined with Russia’s Sputnik V shot, which the country has already authorized for emergency use.
  • In a press release on Friday, AstraZeneca said that it would “soon begin exploring” combining its shot with one made by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute, which developed Sputnik V. 
  • It did not specifically say that it was combining its vaccine with the Russian shot — but Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is financing the country’s vaccine development, confirmed the vaccine in question is one of two vectors that make up Sputnik V.
  • Trials will start by the end of 2020, the wealth fund said.
  • Combining two different vaccines could improve their accessibility as well as providing better protection against COVID-19, AstraZeneca said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

AstraZeneca, the British drugmaker working with the University of Oxford to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, plans to work with the developers of Russia’s Sputnik V to explore a combined shot, it said.

AstraZeneca “will soon begin exploring with Gamaleya Research Institute in Russia to understand whether two adenovirus-based vaccines can be successfully combined,” the drugmaker said in a statement Friday, naming the developer of the Sputnik V vaccine, but not the specific shot.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, confirmed the vaccine in question was one of two vectors that make up Sputnik V.

Clinical trials are slated to begin by the end of December, the RDIF, which is financing the development of Sputnik V, added.

This is the second time AstraZeneca’s vaccine is being used in a “mix and match” trial. On Tuesday, the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce said it would combine the shot with Pfizer’s vaccine to see if the two vaccines together produce a stronger immune response.

Combining different COVID-19 vaccines “may be helpful to improved protection and/or to improve vaccine accessibility,” AstraZeneca said Friday, adding that it “is also likely that combining vaccines may lead to improved immunity over a longer-period of time.”

The RDIF welcomed the cooperation between vaccine producers, its CEO Kirill Dmitriev said Friday, and said it hoped other vaccine producers will follow the example. The RDIF and the Gamaleya Institute approached AstraZeneca in November to suggest combining vaccines.

“The decision by AstraZeneca to carry out clinical trials using one of two vectors of Sputnik V in order to increase its own vaccine’s efficacy is an important step towards uniting efforts in the fight against the pandemic,” Dmitriev added.

Read more: Pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and hospitals are gearing up to give coronavirus vaccines to millions of Americans. Here’s how they’re preparing and how much they stand to profit along the way.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine has not been authorized for use anywhere in the world. In November, AstraZeneca said it would retest its vaccine after admitting that the most positive results in its first trial came from a dosing error.

Russia gave Sputnik V emergency-use authorization on August 11, making it the world’s first vaccine to be approved. The country has been giving it to frontline healthcare workers, though it hasn’t started mass vaccination yet because it’s still in trial stages.

Russia says the vaccine is more than 90% effective.

Why are drugmakers combining different vaccines?

Vaccines often require multiple doses. Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca’s vaccines each require two shots given two to four weeks apart. The first dose is an initial prime, followed by a boost.

“Homologous boosting” is when all shots are the same vaccine, but what AstraZeneca is testing is “heterologous boosting,” where two different vaccines are given.

“It is … likely that combining vaccines may lead to improved immunity over a longer-period of time,” AstraZeneca said in its statement.

The practice could also improve vaccine accessibility, it said, by making immunization programs more flexible.

Sputnik V itself uses two different adenoviral vectors for its two shots, which it says produces a stronger and longer-term immune response.

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