Russian scientist behind COVID-19 vaccine defends ‘wartime’ roll-out

Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya Institute that produced the Sputnik V vaccine, told Reuters that the pace of its development was necessary under the “wartime” conditions of a pandemic. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 September 2020

Russian scientist behind COVID-19 vaccine defends ‘wartime’ roll-out

  • Russia has pushed ahead with its potential COVID-19 vaccine at top speed with mass public vaccinations alongside the main human trial
  • The first of 5,000 volunteers was vaccinated on Sept. 9, which means interim results could be issued some time after Oct. 21

MOSCOW: Russia plans to share preliminary results of its COVID-19 vaccine trial based on the first six weeks of monitoring participants, raising the tempo in an already frenzied global race to end the pandemic.
Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya Institute that produced the Sputnik V vaccine, told Reuters that the pace of its development was necessary under the “wartime” conditions of a pandemic but no corners were being cut.
Russia has pushed ahead with its potential COVID-19 vaccine at top speed with mass public vaccinations alongside the main human trial, raising concerns among some observers that it was prioritising national prestige over solid science and safety.
“People are dying just like during a war,” said Gintsburg, holding a crystal model of a coronavirus in his hand. “But this fast-tracked pace is not synonymous, as some media have suggested, with corners being cut. No way.”
Sitting in his wood-panelled office at the institute in Moscow, Gintsburg said his team had been set a tight deadline to produce a vaccine but all the guidelines for testing Sputnik V’s safety and efficacy had been followed.
The plan to publish interim results based on the first 42 days of monitoring volunteers means Russia has a high chance of becoming the first worldwide to announce any data from a final-stage trial, which is known as Phase III.
The first of 5,000 volunteers was vaccinated on Sept. 9, which means interim results could be issued some time after Oct. 21. Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, which has invested in the vaccine’s roll-out, has said it expects interim results to be published in October or November.

Public interest
Several Western developers are conducting final-stage trials that have already been going on for more than 42 days but have not published any interim results.
Drugmakers have said they would wait until they have enough infections to get a reliable read-out from the data before publication, rather than assigning a specific date.
Gintsburg said there was a public interest argument for sharing interim results after 42 days as they would show the general trend in the data.
“For me, for example, it is too short. But for people who are interested in how things are going, it is already too long.”
Gintsburg said volunteers would be monitored for 180 days after the last of 40,000 participants was vaccinated. Six months on, his team planned to tally up final results and then publish them in an international journal.
Their early-stage trial results were peer-reviewed and published in The Lancet.
In parallel with the trial, Russia began inoculating members of the general public considered at high risk on Sept. 8, another unconventional move by Moscow in the race for a vaccine.
About 400 people have been inoculated so far, according to the health ministry. They undergo a less rigorous medical exam than trial volunteers, though they can submit data about their health following inoculation via an online platform.
A government source told Reuters the interim Phase III trial results would likely inform a decision on whether to expand this mass inoculation drive, starting with people over 60.

Russian roulette
Gintsburg said no serious side-effects had been reported during the Phase III trial so far, while minor, anticipated side-effects had occurred among just 14% to 15% of the volunteers. A quarter of the participants receive a placebo.
He also defended the vaccine’s early registration for public use, saying it was the most ethical approach.
“The choice was between giving people the opportunity to protect themselves, or letting them play roulette with this deadly infection.”
He also said Russia was aiming for the vaccine to be about 75% more effective than a placebo, which is above the 50% threshold for COVID-19 vaccines set by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Gintsburg said having 40,000 trial participants meant the trial would be effective even with low levels of COVID-19 transmission in the Russian capital.
“It guarantees that even with a low infection rate, we would still have statistically significant data.”
Moscow registered 642 new cases of COVID-19 the day the trial began. The infection rate has risen since, with 2,217 new cases on Monday, though that’s still well below a peak of around 6,000 daily infections in the capital in early May.
Other vaccine-makers have launched mass trials in countries such as Brazil, South Africa and the United States, searching for places where the disease is still rife after the epidemic came down from its peak in Europe.
Russia also plans to test in several countries, including Belarus, Brazil and India.

Impossible and unethical
Drugmakers have also pledged to ensure their larger clinical trials include diverse sets of volunteers in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age and other factors.
Russia is setting Phase III quotas by age to ensure a sufficient number of elderly participants, Gintsburg said, but no other special groups were being formed. Over a fifth of those vaccinated in the trial so far have been over 50, he said.
The rate of transmission among trial participants affects the timing of when many vaccine-makers plan to publish interim results as they need to record a certain number of COVID-19 infections before early data can be shared.
British drugmaker AstraZeneca launched a Phase III trial for its vaccine in May and has not yet disclosed any trends.
US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which is developing a vaccine with German partner BioNTech, and US vaccine maker Moderna both began their trials in late July. Neither has made any preliminary disclosures yet.
BioNTech has said it may have data for a regulatory filing by the end of October or early November.
In a bid to speed up the process of finding a vaccine, Britain is planning to host trials where volunteers are deliberately infected with COVID-19.
Gintsburg said this kind of trial was impossible in Russia and considered unethical: “We were surprised by the news.”


Taiwan says won’t be intimidated by China’s ‘hooligan’ diplomats

Updated 56 sec ago

Taiwan says won’t be intimidated by China’s ‘hooligan’ diplomats

  • The Pacific is a major source of competition between the two
  • ‘China’s officials posted overseas are acting like hooligans; beating people is not acceptable’
TAIPEI: Taiwan will not be intimidated by China’s “hooligan” officials and will continue to celebrate its national day around the world, the government said on Tuesday, after Taiwan said Chinese diplomats had tried to charge into a diplomatic event in Fiji.
Taiwan’s charges, including that a Taiwanese diplomat ended up in hospital after the altercation, are hotly disputed by China, which views the democratically-run island as its own territory with no right to formal state-to-state ties.
The Pacific is a major source of competition between the two, where Taiwan has official diplomatic relations with four countries, though not Fiji.
Taiwan says the Chinese diplomats were trying to take pictures of a Taiwan national day event at a hotel to see who was there, and that in the altercation that followed people from both sides were injured.
Speaking in Taipei, Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said Taiwan was a “peace-loving country” that invited people to events around the world for its Oct. 10 national day, which marks the founding of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.
“Going forward we will continue to hold national day receptions,” she said. “This will not change.”
China can spread as many lies as it likes but Taiwan shouldn’t pay too much attention, Ou said.
“The reality is this year we had 108 offices hold national day events in different ways, inviting the world to celebrate our birthday.”
Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said the world needed to see what China was capable of, saying what they did was a “barbaric act.”
“China’s officials posted overseas are acting like hooligans; beating people is not acceptable. We sternly condemn this,” he told reporters.
The issue was hard to deal with because the Chinese diplomats there have diplomatic immunity, Su added.
“But we must appeal to the international community with the relevant evidence.”
Fiji’s foreign ministry has yet to comment on the incident, though Ou said Fiji’s government had been trying to mediate to bring a close to the issue.