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Russia’s way out Microbiologist Denis Logunov explains his headstart on a coronavirus vaccine and why a two-vector approach promises better immunity

Source: Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza

Denis Logunov, a deputy research director at the Gamaleya Center, leads the group developing Russia’s first coronavirus vaccine. In an experiment he now refuses to discuss publicly (saying he “doesn’t like the hype”), Logunov actually tested the treatment on himself. He has since administered the vaccine to 76 volunteers, each of whom has maintained a “journal,” noting any side effects, like fever, rash, and irritation where they received their shots. So far, fortunately, there have been no serious aftereffects. The authorities hope the immunization will be ready as soon as September. In an interview with Meduza science editor Alexander Ershov and special correspondent Svetlana Reiter, Logunov explained that the vaccine’s mass production won’t begin any sooner than the end of the year, though he expects provisional approval for broader testing by the fall. Logunov has yet to publish the results of his research in scientific journals, but he agreed to share some of the details of his work here.

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In a world still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s little surprise that Denis Logunov had no trouble finding volunteers to test his experimental coronavirus vaccine. A deputy research director at Russia’s Gamaleya Center, Logunov told Meduza that his team has created a vaccine using an adenovirus as a vector to deliver SARS-CoV-2 genetic material into patients. Once inside a person’s body, the pieces of the coronavirus pathogen within the adenoviruses stimulate an immune response, hopefully inoculating the host against SARS-CoV-2.

The adenovirus is chemically weakened to prevent it from multiplying in normal human cells, but it is able to carry the coronavirus’s spike protein (which is what helps the virus attach to and infect human cells). Logunov says the vaccine uses a live vector because “inactivated vaccines” stimulate an antibody immune response but not the formation of cellular immunity, risking lower immunity and even “Antibody-Dependent Enhancement” (where a virus leverages antibodies to aid infection).

Unlike the coronavirus vaccines now being developed in China, Great Britain, and the U.S., Logunov has developed a two-vector (two-staged) vaccine: one shot of human adenovirus type 26 and, three weeks later, one shot of human adenovirus type 5 (both containing the SARS-CoV-2 S protein gene). Logunov told Meduza that his team has measured better immune responses to vaccines using different vectors, whereas booster shots that rely on the same vector sometimes lead to weaker immunity that fades after 3-6 months.

Semyon Katz for Meduza

Logunov and his team had something of a headstart, having refined these methods previously while developing a vaccine against the Ebola virus. In the three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, he worked to create a vaccine against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). When he pivoted to SARS-CoV-2 in February 2020, the prototype vaccine was ready in two weeks.

Before beginning human trials, Logunov tested the vaccine on several species of animals, including two kinds of primates. His team is now wrapping up Phase I trials on two groups of humans — 76 volunteers in all. Very soon, Russia’s Health Ministry is expected to grant provisional approval for Phase-II tests, where the vaccine is administered to people who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. Before mass production, the vaccine will need to pass Phase III, when it’s given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety over a period of six months. Logunov says his team is working to expedite this process and begin these trials as soon as August, though he’s quick to point out that he has no control over federal regulators.

Logunov also says it’s not for him to decide how Russia will roll out its coronavirus inoculations, but he warns against forcing the public to get the shots. People are “able to decide this for themselves,” he says. “The Health Ministry will likely identify certain risk groups for whom the vaccine will be recommended, due to their greater social contact, like doctors and teachers. There will probably be recommendations adopted for people in these fields.”

Semyon Katz for Meduza

By the end of the year, Logunov says he expects the Gamaleya Center to be producing 3-5 million doses of his vaccine annually. The equipment and supplies for this endeavor have already been ordered. Logunov says he isn’t racing to manufacture the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, but he is in a hurry to protect his own loved ones. “Beating the Americans and beating the Europeans are financial goals for conquering the market, but I don’t conquer markets — I develop treatments. And I need my treatment to be good and effective. Who will move it and how is important, but it’s secondary,” he said, stressing that he feels a sense of duty, given his expertise. “You can’t be a microbiologist or virologist right now and stay out of this. It’s a call to action and we have to get the job done.”

Asked about recent allegations in the West that Russian and Chinese hackers have tried to steal research data about coronavirus vaccines, Logunov expressed skepticism. “When you live and breathe a certain kind of technology, whether you like it or not, you build up a lot of best practices that you often don’t even submit for a patent. But they’re very hard to steal — you need to spend 15-20 years of your life on the work to really master the technology and to reproduce it in any environment. How do you steal that? It’s only possible [working] with the development team itself. And once the vaccine hits the market, everyone will be able to see its composition and there will be no secret,” he argued.

Interview by Svetlana Reiter and Alexander Ershov

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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