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A Rospotrebnadzor employee checks passengers’ temperatures at a distance in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. March 20, 2020

‘It tried to smother everybody’ How the Russian government’s obscure biological sanitation agency monopolized the COVID-19 research pipeline, delaying tests and potentially vaccines

Source: Meduza
A Rospotrebnadzor employee checks passengers’ temperatures at a distance in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. March 20, 2020
A Rospotrebnadzor employee checks passengers’ temperatures at a distance in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. March 20, 2020
SOPA Images Limited / Alamy / Vida Press

The Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare used to be the Russian government’s agency for monitoring sanitation compliance and consumer safety. Now, it’s the country’s most powerful biological security force. As the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated, so has the bureaucratic might of this otherwise-obscure regulatory arm, usually known by the (still-unwieldy) abbreviation Rospotrebnadzor. Its rank-and-file employees have fought to overcome the unexpectedly rapid spread of the disease, while their higher-ups have continued to push fiercely for ever-bigger budgets and ever-greater scientific achievements. Russian epidemiologists, geneticists, and virologists told Meduza investigative correspondent Liliya Yapparova why the country’s sanitation and disease czars have gotten 1.5 billion rubles ($21.1 million) in government funds to counter a global pandemic and how Russian research about COVID-19 has suffered as a result.

A biological bomb from Moscow

On April 9, a stranger arrived in a small city about 300 kilometers (186.4 miles) from Moscow. “He came here from the capital with no clear purpose when he was maximally contagious,” a local sanitary doctor later said (the doctor, who was concerned that he might be fired for speaking with journalists, asked to remain anonymous). In the two days the man spent in town, he left almost no trace behind him. All we know is that he never asked for medical help: there are no records about him in any of the area’s hospitals.

The man lost consciousness at the city’s bus station while trying to return to Moscow. “His oxygen level was at 60 percent,” another local doctor said. “He choked — he suffocated without drowning.” The ambulance brigade that picked up the man wasn’t even wearing facemasks: nobody in the city knew that this man who had entered their midst for unknown reasons was dying of the novel coronavirus. “He was already at the peak of the disease when he got here, as though he was intentionally planning to infect people. The overall impression was as though it had been a biological bomb,” the sanitary doctor told Meduza. As the highest-ranking Rospotrebnadzor representative in the area, he was the one who had to lead an epidemiological investigation in the following 24 hours and discover who else the man from Moscow had infected with COVID-19.

“It was a system of equations with all the unknowns,” the doctor quipped. To prevent a hotspot from forming, he had been forced to plan out every hour of the last two days before our interview. An inter-city bus driver tried to remember and describe who had traveled with the contagious man. Security camera footage showed where he had slept. The bus station was disinfected, its ticket records inspected, and its vendors questioned.

“It’s been less than 20 days [since then], but for me, they’ve all bled into a single endless day with no weekends or any time to rest,” the sanitary doctor said. “These kinds of epidemiological investigations happen after every confirmed case. It’s daily work [that feels invisible]. More than 80 percent of the swabs are sent to Rospotrebnadzor’s lab, where the employees work in fume hoods with hundreds of potentially infectious samples. For the last month, we’ve been working from 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM with no weekends. I stay up till 1:00 AM every day waiting [for test results] so I can start contact tracing right away. Meanwhile, there’s a flood of pseudoexperts on TV who are all trying to see a plateau [in the case counts].”

Rospotrebnadzor now stands at the helm of Russia’s biological security operations nationwide. The COVID-19 epidemic has been the agency’s greatest call to arms in many years: because up to 80 percent of the virus’s carriers remain asymptomatic, the virus spread faster than Rospotrebnadzor could track it. “The most important thing always used to be tracking and breaking the chain [of infections],” said the lead sanitary doctor for a densely populated area about five hours away from Moscow. “Asymptomatics are bombs. There are a lot of them.” Epidemiologist Mikhail Favorov, the president of the biotech group DiaPrep System Inc., put it even more sharply: “What the hell kind of ‘infection chains’ are we talking about? The whole city is on fire already! You can only act on the people you see, but that head sanitary doctor isn’t seeing 90 percent [of the infections]!” he exclaimed.

Neither periodic measles outbreaks nor in-house epidemic drills were enough to prepare Rospotrebnadzor for 2020. The drills, agency sources told Meduza, involved pretending to prevent a hemorrhagic fever or the plague from spreading through the country. “At least a plague patient has very noticeable clinical symptoms — we can quickly identify and isolate them,” complained Anton, an agency employee who asked that his name be changed for this story.

Zalina, another employee who asked not to be identified by her real name, said she had never encountered an infection that spreads so fast. “Sometimes, you just can’t understand where people got it,” she said. “There was one person with a Class One disability who got sick — he was bedridden, couldn’t go anywhere! I mean, it’s obvious he hadn’t taken a trip abroad or something. He had a caretaker — where had she been? He had a massage therapist — where does he live?

While community spread of the kind Zalina described is already a familiar story, some cases in Russia seem even more inexplicable. “There was a little baby who got infected — he was still breastfeeding, just a month or two old. The thing is that his parents tested negative, and he tested positive. They hadn’t had any visits from relatives,” said Arina, yet another agency worker who asked to use a pseudonym.

As late as February, Rospotrebnadzor’s staff believed they would be able to confine COVID-19 to Russia’s airports, said Anton, who started supervising incoming flights from China in mid-January. “We thought we would be able to stop the epidemic from spreading in Russia, that anti-epidemic procedures on the border would be enough, that it would act like a typical flu,” he recalled. Anton is still trying to understand what went wrong. “The first few days were one big mess: one flight only got temperature measurements, another got swabs as well, and another one only swabbed people who had a temperature. There were no comprehensive guidelines to test asymptomatic passengers for the coronavirus if they’d arrived from places that still didn’t have a high number of cases.”

Meduza’s regularly updated map showing the coronavirus’s spread across Russia.

According to Rospotrebnadzor representatives, 5,274,029 people were examined in this fashion between December 31, 2019, and early April 2020. Officials identified “infectious disease symptoms” in 594 of them. Every entry point into the country was monitored for fevers, and Rospotrebnadzor claims that comprehensive testing and quarantine guidelines were distributed to all its border-control employees back in January.

Still, the virus made it into Russia from several European countries, multiple infectious disease experts told Meduza. Scholars who have studied the genetic makeup of the coronavirus strains now spreading in Russia agreed that the contagion originated in multiple different locations.

Still, when Anton was monitoring January’s arrivals from China, he and his colleagues didn’t find anybody who had the new coronavirus. “Maybe that’s when we missed them — the passenger doesn’t have any symptoms, so they don’t get tested… I worry that we just missed the asymptomatic form [of the disease]: we didn’t swab the right person at the right time,” he speculated.

Soon after Rospotrebnadzor strengthened its monitoring efforts at Russia’s borders and entry points, the agency announced Russia’s first cases of COVID-19. Neither of them were at the Western airports Anton and his colleagues were testing; instead, they were found thousands of miles away in Siberia.

The wrong COVID

The first COVID-19 patients identified in Russia were two Chinese citizens. On January 31, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova announced that both were “under strict observation” in the cities of Tyumen and Chita. Two days later, one of the patients, Wan Yunbin, got in touch with local journalists and asked in an interview for his blood to be “sent for testing in Manchuria.” As it turned out, Russian doctors had already taken samples from him six times, and they were still unable or unwilling to reveal the results.

The tests might have been causing trouble for Chita’s doctors because Wan Yunbin, his family, and the Chinese college student who was being held in Tyumen didn’t actually have COVID-19. In any case, that’s a widely discussed theory among scientists, three Russia researchers working on the new coronavirus told Meduza. “The first two COVID cases in Russia weren’t COVID,” one epidemiologist who leads a healthcare research institute declared. “Nobody’s ever going to confirm that to you, of course, but people say the Chinese citizens in Tyumen and Chita just had false positives [in their initial coronavirus tests].”

One indirect piece of evidence in that debate is the fact that the genetic makeup of the virus strain supposedly detected in Tyumen and Chita was never analyzed. For Russia’s scientists, it was a strange and disappointing omission: because no other COVID-19 cases imported from China have been confirmed by the Russian government, the two early Siberian cases would have provided important information about the coronavirus’s spread. “It would have been very interesting to understand the genetic properties of the viruses from Tyumen and Chita, but there’s no data, unfortunately,” said Andrey Komissarov, not without irony. His team at St. Petersburg’s Smorodintsev Influenza Institute has sequenced the novel coronavirus from Russian samples.

Evolutionary Biologist Georgy Bazykin, meanwhile, pointed out that there’s no data from the Tyumen and Chita infections in the GISAID database, an international storage space for coronavirus genetic results. There was a company lined up to sequence what would have been Russia’s first samples — Vektor, a virology center under Rospotrebnadzor’s control, had exclusive rights to work with coronavirus samples and develop tests in the first few weeks of Russia’s pandemic. “Here’s where we start to get sequences that were uploaded by Vektor,” said Komissarov, pointing to screenshots from GISAID. “The first sample that was sequenced and uploaded to the database was taken on March 11, 2020 [and not in January].” Rospotrebnadzor did not clarify what happened to the supposed viral samples from Chita and Tyumen when Meduza reached out to ask for comment.

A screenshot from the GISAID database taken on May 4, 2020

From the very beginning of Russia’s COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that things were going wrong in the scientific efforts underway at Vektor. The research center, which is based in Novosibirsk, created Russia’s first PCR test for the new coronavirus by January 29, but that test turned out to be significantly less sensitive and therefore less accurate than its counterparts from abroad. By April, Moscow healthcare chief Alexey Khripun had publicly acknowledged that the test requires an unusually high viral load to detect that a patient has COVID-19. A number of sources interviewed for this story agreed with him, including a coronavirus test developer, a biotechnology expert, an epidemiologist, a virologist, and four Rospotrebnadzor employees working in various divisions, among them the Central Scientific Research Institute for Epidemiology.

Still, Rospotrebnadzor’s official response to Meduza’s questions includes the following claim: “The test systems [developed by Rospotrebnadzor’s research institutions] […] possess maximal sensitivity and are capable of detecting individual copies of the virus in a reaction. These data have been confirmed with live viruses in laboratory trials, including trials conducted abroad (e.g. in China), and they have also been confirmed in research settings using clinical samples.”

According to Sergey Avdeyev, the head pulmonology consultant for Russia’s Health Ministry, Vektor’s tests gave false negative results 20 – 30 percent of the time, so all of them had to be re-checked in Novosibirsk, at Vektor’s headquarters. “The analyses [there] would take between seven and 28 days,” said an employee at Moscow’s Infectious Disease Hospital No. 2.

“PCR [the polymerase chain reaction used to detect the virus’s genetic material] only takes four hours — why did we have to wait so long?” asked an employee for one of Rospotrebnadzor’s hygiene and epidemiology centers. “It was a dirty trick [on Rospotrebnadzor’s part],” added the director of a research institute within Russia’s healthcare system. “It was dirty and absurd because their very own system ended up with three times the workload through all of February and the first half of March. Even when there weren’t many [COVID-19] cases, those poor folks were sitting in those stifling biohazard suits nonstop.” On March 23, Rospotrebnadzor allowed test results to be verified in Moscow as well as Novosibirsk.

It’s also possible that the tests produced in Russia early on were unable to detect COVID-19 in its preliminary stages. Because the disease can escalate from mild symptoms to serious complications very quickly, that oversight “increased the risk of severe illness,” Moscow’s Health Department warned its doctors in early April. The fact that the entire testing process was also unusually slow interfered with efforts to ramp up medical aid and keep the pandemic’s spread to a minimum. “They’re holding up our results over there, and meanwhile, over here, people are dying. When we’re basically at war, that’s not okay! If you wait a long time for your test, then you don’t know what steps to take with a specific person, which zone in the hospital to put them in, whether to isolate them from other patients or not. You’re waiting a long time for the test, and then [you find out] three people with three different COVID statuses are being treated in the same room and infecting one another,” a government healthcare official told Meduza.

Most of these errors stemmed from the speed with which Russia’s first test was produced. It was the very top of Rospotrebnadzor’s leadership structure that ordered Vektor to make a test at record speed. “Everyone forgets that they just went up to Vektor and said, ‘You have to finish the whole cycle — from initial research to releasing your first samples — in a single week,” said a Central Scientific Research Institute for Epidemiology employee. “It should have taken a month or two. The rumor is that when Vektor was making the [test] system, it put its employees on 24-hour schedules.” Rospotrebnadzor did not comment when asked whether the Vektor test’s flaws were related to the deadlines placed on the company.

The director of a research institute controlled by Russia’s Health Ministry told Meduza that there was another path open to Russia at the beginning of the pandemic. The country could have used a testing system developed by Berlin’s Charité Universitätsmedizin and recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The same epidemiologist suggested that when the time came to decide between using an existing test and making a new one, Rospotrebnadzor’s institutional interests ultimately came out on top. “Since Rospotreb had said up-front that they were making their own test system, their own self-interest didn’t allow them to back down,” the scientist explained. “It really does look like they ultimately improved the testing assay to a higher standard, but in the first several weeks, we were all using an imperfect ‘emergency’ system thanks to the personal ambitions of the agency’s leadership.”

Komissarov, the scientist who led Russia’s coronavirus sequencing effort, confirmed that WHO did give Russia the internationally recommended German test. In February, the country’s researchers received about 10 kits, each of which was good for about 1,000 tests. Even as early as January 13, the test was available to be copied since its protocol had been published on the WHO website, Komissarov added.

The viral genetics expert said that at first, those were the tests his institute used for research purposes. “A lot of scientific labs studied the protocols on WHO’s website and tried to introduce those protocols into their own experiments,” Komissarov said. “Once you’ve read the protocol for detecting the coronavirus by PCR, you can order everything you need and implement it yourself in your lab. Then, you try to validate your findings, see how well the test really works. If you aren’t sure of the results, there’s an existing mechanism for sending your samples to be tested at a WHO-recognized reference lab, and WHO pays for that process.”

The catch is that if you want to use a protocol replicated from WHO’s testing system for detecting COVID-19 among the public, you need to register your test with the Russian government. “What’s the difference between a testing kit and a protocol? Well, the former is a product that’s ready to be used because it’s been validated by the producer. Even if a given test is just wonderful, if it doesn’t have a validated registration in Russia, then whatever results you get from it have no legal weight. For example, you wouldn’t be able to send somebody into quarantine [based on a positive test result],” Komissarov explained.

The agency responsible for registering disease tests in Russia is called Roszdravnadzor — it’s a division of the federal Health Ministry and should not be confused with Rospotrebnadzor. Ministry representatives didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about whether the German test was under consideration for a Russian license. “There are no obstacles for these test systems to be registered,” a Rospotrebnadzor representative said. “At this point, there are more than 21 test systems registered in the Russian Federation to detect the novel coronavirus. They include tests that were developed outside the country, at Health Ministry research institutes, at Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency (FMBA), and at private companies.”

An employee for the Hygiene and Epidemiology Center in Krasnodar Krai processes biological samples to determine whether or not they contain the new coronavirus.
Igor Onuchin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

A prestigious disease

From the very beginning of the epidemic, Rospotrebnadzor has used its status as Russia’s main biosafety agency to complicate research in other labs, according to nine sources who spoke with Meduza. Two of those sources are researchers within Rospotrebnadzor itself. The rest are a biotechnology expert, a virologist, three government employees working for the FMBA and the Health Ministry, and a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Rospotrebnadzor did not comment on what these sources told us.

The agency has worked to eliminate its competition as early as the research proposal stage. “Coronavirus is a high-stakes game,” said one of the leading epidemiologists in Russia’s healthcare system (his employer, the Health Ministry, is also a contender in the scramble for COVID-19 funds). “Right now, your scientific achievements translate into a shot at a piece of the pie. Whoever’s sequenced more also publishes more and shows that they’re in control of the situation. That boosts their chances of getting something out of the government’s budget.” Meduza’s sources believe that Rospotrebnadzor’s efforts to win that race have already damaged Russian research into the coronavirus’s genetics and pushed back the start of mass testing. It might even delay vaccine development, they added.

On March 19, 2020, the Smorodintsev Influenza Institute, where Andrey Komissarov leads the molecular virology lab, revealed the genetic makeup of a Russian coronavirus strain. The virus’s RNA was sequenced using a nose swab taken from a 30-year-old woman. Research like Komissarov’s could help Russia develop COVID-19 treatments and vaccines or even investigate individual outbreaks.

A few weeks after their sequencing results were published, Kommisarov’s team realized that “someone was upset” with them, he told Meduza. “These strange waves of media coverage would come up saying our sequences were bad or that we don’t even know what we’re doing. First, it was a bizarre article in a Chinese outlet that was ‘confirmed’ by ‘a senior government scientist in Moscow.’ Then, there was an idiotic ‘investigation’ about how we’re ‘State Department agents.’”

“It was funny, but it was also pretty nasty, and it got on our nerves,” Komissarov said. He told us he didn’t know who was behind the media attacks.

The backlash against the Flu Institute’s success didn’t stop there, however. One of the Health Ministry’s leading epidemiologists and a Rospotrebnadzor epidemiology researcher both said Rospotrebnadzor itself started taking action against Komissarov’s colleagues. “When they finished the [sequencing] job first — when they beat Vektor [which is controlled by Rospotrebnadzor] — there was a price to pay after that,” said the Health Ministry source. “They were very clearly treated more poorly after that. Rospotrebnadzor started being noticeably stricter about licensing their work with biohazardous agents. It was all supposedly part of their usual procedures, but everyone knew what was going on.”

“They used their administrative authority [against the Flu Institute],” the Rospotrebnadzor researcher confirmed. “They published [the sequence for] the first strain, but they haven’t published the next one. There can only be one reason for that: somebody told them from above not to do it.” Neither Rospotrebnadzor nor the Heath Ministry commented on possible pressure against the Flu Institute.

Because Rospotrebnadzor is Russia’s biological sanitation authority, it is the agency responsible for granting laboratories permission to work with biological materials at various pathogenicity levels. This means nearly every biology lab in Russia needs the agency’s approval to keep running. “For example, laboratories have to renew their licenses for working with dangerous viruses. What if they’re suddenly told, ‘Oh, you’re missing this-and-that document.’ They’ve never been asked for the document before, but now they need it all of a sudden,” said one epidemiologist, arguing that these kinds of prohibitive powers ultimately led Rospotrebnadzor to receive a near-exclusive right to research COVID-19 in Russia. Other scholars simply weren’t granted access to contagious biomaterials both within the country and when they tried sending their systems abroad for testing. “Rospotrebnadzor tried to smother everybody else,” concluded one Meduza source who had tried to study the novel coronavirus.

On January 24, when Russia had barely started researching the then-obscure pathogen SARS-CoV-2, Rospotrebnadzor head Anna Popova issued a decree: all of the agency’s regional directors were to “collect […] and transport biological materials” related to the virus to one facility only: the Vektor Research Center. “All infectious samples should be going to Vektor first of all, and everybody else comes later,” Komissarov said of the decree. “So back then, when it was still an open race to catch up with the Chinese, our chances of competing with Rospotrebnadzor were zero.”

Rospotrebnadzor head Anna Popova gives a briefing in the Tyumen airport. February 5, 2020
Maxim Slutsky / TASS / Vida Press

The Flu Institute’s first samples that tested positive for the new coronavirus didn’t come from Rospotrebnadzor — they came from Russian hospitals. “[We got] swabs from the nose, from the throat, from phlegm, and then severely ill patients produce samples from lower down in their respiratory systems, from the flushing fluids in their bronchi.” Even as Komissarov described the sources of his material to us, he was periodically interrupted by the crackling walkie-talkie he uses to communicate with colleagues in the infectious “red zone” of the lab. “We wear suits a lot like the one Putin wore when he visited Kommunarka,” Komissarov continued, referring to Moscow’s primary COVID-19 hospital. “In the last three weeks, we’ve done 6,000 samples. I’ve been feeling this almost athlete-like buzz because of how many tests and sequences we’ve been able to do. We work almost around the clock — we have some folding beds over there.”

Rospotrebnadzor not only ordered Vektor’s monopoly on samples; the agency also defended that access by blocking the delivery of coronavirus samples from Europe, according to the molecular diagnostics news site “There’s no ban for bringing it into Russia on paper, but you have to get permission from the Federal Service for Technical and Export Control (FSTEK), which in turn asks for a sanitary and epidemiological advisory report that only Rospotrebnadzor can give [for samples of this category]. The process can last years.” Kommisarov confirmed this: “I know colleagues who still haven’t been able to get permission to import [samples],” he said.

Eventually, Rospotrebnadzor started allowing laboratories other than Vektor to start working with and testing COVID-19 samples, but even then, numerous qualified facilities were kept out of the process. In March, a month after Popova put Vektor in charge of COVID-19 tests, she gradually began expanding the number of labs that were allowed to join it. By April, nearly all applicants for coronavirus testing facilities were being granted permission to work. Sequencing is still a different story.

Sergey Netesov, a molecular biologist and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Meduza that even the Academy’s genetic technology centers haven’t been granted permission to sequence the novel coronavirus. “It’s not competition — it’s just a dog in the manger,” Netesov argued. “It’s the Academy of Sciences that has truly powerful genome sequencing abilities at its disposal, but to get ahold of those samples, it needs permission from hospital administrators, healthcare officials, and Rospotrebnadzor. Why wouldn’t the hospitals and Rospotrebnadzor’s sub-agencies given them deactivated [viral] materials for sequencing?”

Rospotrebnadzor hasn’t even been letting other researchers within its own hierarchy compete with Vektor, two such researchers told Meduza. “There’s Vektor, and that’s Rospotrebnadzor’s favorite child. None of the other children get to do anything before Vektor — they need to put in significant bureaucratic effort if they want to be able to say, ‘We were first — we did it.’ For example, I’m not sure that our sequencing data will ever see the light of day,” said an employee at the Central Scientific Research Institute for Epidemiology. Another source in the Gabrichevsky Scientific Research Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology said his team’s plans for creating a new antibody test were stifled as well. “We actually got it off the ground, but we weren’t able to finish. At Rospotrebnadzor, different functions are divided among different institutes pretty strictly,” he explained.

“Scientific research and development are among the central responsibilities of Rospotrebnadzor’s scientific organizations. This role has only expanded over time,” an agency representative told Meduza.

“I haven’t seen any barriers or limits to scientific work. On the contrary, that kind of work has only been expanding,” said Academy of Sciences scholar Vasily Akimkin, who leads the Central Scientific Research Institute for Epidemiology. “In science, competition is completely normal, just a part of everyday life. In my view, it’s a good thing that Rospotrebnadzor has scientific research institutes within it that can work and complement each other. Every institute has its own research specialties, but that’s not a reason to stop other teams from working on problems we all share.”

Employees work at a virology lab at the Central Scientific Research Institute for Epidemiology, which is controlled by Rospotrebnadzor. March 20, 2020
Sergey Karpukhin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On March 25, news broke that almost a billion rubles ($13.97 million) from the federal government’s coronavirus budget had been allocated to Vektor’s Novosibirsk headquarters, the Microbe Institute (which Rospotrebnadzor also controls), and Rospotrebnadzor’s broader network of laboratories. The funding was intended for vaccine and treatment development as well as continued testing throughout Russia. “Vektor developed the first test system, and then it was immediately given however many billions of rubles to keep working on it. The second person to get there won’t get that sort of funding anymore,” said Vadim Pokrovsky, who leads the Federal AIDS Center at Rospotrebnadzor’s epidemiology institute.

Rospotrebnadzor’s actions have evidently had a significant effect on Russia’s contributions to coronavirus research worldwide. “The main storage system for SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences is the EpiCoV GISAID database,” Komissarov said. “Right now, about 150 sequences in there are from Russia. For comparison, the UK has already done three and a half thousand.” According to Komissarov, his own workplace produced more than 80 of those sequences, while Vektor produced more than 60.

Two scholars from the Health Ministry and the FMBA told Meduza that they have sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes but will be unable to publish the results. In some cases, the research was conducted in secret; in others, samples were received illicitly from abroad. “I’ve done a lot of genomes, but I haven’t published them because I don’t have the [legal] right, and I never will,” said the FMBA employee with a grimace. “Rospotrebnadzor didn’t give me permission to work with that level of pathogenicity, so I can’t officially receive samples from patients and extract the RNA. If I publish all these genomes now, people will ask me, ‘Where did you get your samples?’” The director of a Health Ministry institute added, “We’ve gotten to the point where it’s easier for us to work with international systems and colleagues from other countries to research the virus’s epidemiology all over the world that it is for us to get data in Russia.”

The FMBA denied that any of its researchers are facing competition or artificial barriers for COVID-19 research, saying none of its scientists are authorized to work directly with genetic materials from the coronavirus in the first place. The Health Ministry did not respond to Meduza’s questions about interagency competition. Multiple sources told us that the Ministry has also made efforts to throw obstacles in the way of its scientific competitors by withholding patient data that is crucial for interpreting sequencing results.

Once it had cut off access to coronavirus samples in February and early March, Rospotrebnadzor worked to keep both private biotech firms and government-funded labs out of the market for new diagnostic tests. “All the test kits that were developed in March — that was all done under the table,” said an employee at one of the Health Ministry’s research facilities who requested anonymity. “People dodged Rospotrebnadzor’s obstacles by hook or by crook, and Rospotrebnadzor did everything it could to make sure that the messed-up old Vektor system was the only one out there.” Coronavirus test developer Vladimir Kolin previously detailed the failures of the Vektor test to Meduza in an interview.

Meanwhile, the first privately produced COVID-19 diagnostic test, which received a license from Rospotrebnadzor in record time, was made by the company Evotech-Mirai Genomics. That firm has ties to companies owned by the family of Arkady Rotenberg, a friend of Vladimir Putin. The project’s main investor is the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which denies that Rotenberg was involved in the project.

The next stage in the fight against COVID-19 is the race to create a vaccine. Virologist Anatoly Alshtein has already spoken out against allowing monopolies to form in that process: he argues that as many teams as possible should be allowed to take part in the necessary research. “I think the problem of COVID-19 can’t be solved without a live vaccine,” said Alshtein, who works for a government epidemiology and microbiology institute. “And whatever small amount of virology capacity they have at Vektor and other restricted-access research institutes is completely insufficient. We’re talking about purely virological problems: extracting virus strains, testing them on animals that have low sensitivity to them, doing experiments, preparing cell cultures, titrating viruses and studying their properties. You need a lot of heads and a lot of hands for that.”

Text by Liliya Yapparova

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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