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A researcher performs CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing

From gene bombs to classroom curriculum How Vladimir Putin became infatuated with genetics and entrusted the industry to friends and family

Source: Meduza
A researcher performs CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing
A researcher performs CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing
Gregor Fischer / dpa / Alamy / Vida Press

Until recently, the Russian authorities showed little interest in genetics. The breakthrough came in 2019, when the government allocated 127 billion rubles ($1.7 billion) to a special seven-year federal program. In fact, as Meduza learned, the Kremlin’s overall spending on projects involving genetics could actually reach 230 billion rubles ($3 billion) in the coming years. Vladimir Putin personally supervises the implementation of these programs, and he’s put his own relatives and closest friends (in particular, his eldest daughter Maria Vorontsova and the cellist Sergey Roldugin) in charge of overseeing the work. Additionally, the oil giant Rosneft acts as the state’s main corporate partner. Meduza explains how the president became infatuated with a field of science that was heresy in the Soviet Union and neglected in the decades after communism’s collapse.

The journal Nature first approached molecular and cell biologist Fyodor Urnov in late 2014, asking him to review new Chinese research on editing human embryos. The experiments horrified the UC Berkeley professor.

“How to formulate this without using profanity… Generally speaking, [the Chinese scientists] promised to use this method to solve all the problems of hereditary diseases, which, of course, was metaphysical heresy,” Dr. Urnov told a group last fall, frowning and doing his best to convey his outrage. He delivered these remarks remotely to an audience assembled at RIA Novosti’s Moscow studio in a roundtable exchange of “socio-humanitarian expertise” concerning “editing the genome of reproductive cells and human embryos.” 

Some highly influential people were listening.

The woman widely believed to be Vladimir Putin’s eldest daughter, endocrinologist and roundtable chairperson Maria Vorontsova, explained that Fyodor Urnov’s disgust was a good way to “get the discussion going.” Georgy Shevkunov, the Orthodox bishop whom journalists say is Putin’s personal confessor (though he and the president deny it), was seated immediately to Vorontsova’s right. 

Urnov refused to review the Chinese research in 2014 and ended up writing his own article in response, denouncing the editing of human embryos as a dangerous practice that could seriously harm the people it’s meant to help. With that, the scientific community seemed to forget about it for a few years, says Urnov.

In late 2018, however, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui announced his creation of the first genetically edited human beings — twin girls known by their pseudonyms, Lulu and Nana. “I almost fainted then,” Urnov told his Moscow audience, describing He’s actions as a mix of insanity and reckless fame-seeking. Urnov’s comments were clearly meant for Denis Rebrikov, the molecular biologist at the Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University who was seated across from Vorontsova and Shevkunov. Rebrikov listened to his overseas colleague and smiled dryly. 

Many have written about Rebrikov. Some call him a genius while others dismiss him as an attention seeker, though he describes himself as a radical. Even after He Jiankui’s notorious experiments, Rebrikov made an aborted attempt to edit the genome of a Russian married couple’s unborn child diagnosed with hereditary hearing loss. “Dr. He made a number of mistakes, of course, but the children [born as a result of his experiment] are perfectly healthy,” Rebrikov calmly told Urnov, ignoring the fact that almost nothing is known about the twins, apart from their pseudonyms. (It’s not even clear how the Chinese scientist manipulated the two girls as embryos.) “There are numerous cases where embryonic editing is possible,” Rebrikov explained.

When the biologists were done, Vorontsova turned to Georgy Shevkunov and asked the cleric for his opinion, wondering if science goes too far by meddling in the human genetic code — “interfering with evolution and, as it were, the Lord’s handiwork.” 

There’s some wiggle room here, it turns out.

Shevkunov explained that the Russian Orthodox Church’s Biomedical Ethics Council, founded back in 1998, has labored over the issue of manipulating living embryos. Nevertheless, “it would be great” if scientists somehow find an acceptable, medically justified method for genetic editing, he added. Vorontsova seized on this response, declaring, “You’ve raised an important concern. We’ve been working here to bring Russian research in this field to the forefront.”

For now, at least, editing a human being is still beyond Russian science, but the authorities are making a major push to advance the nation’s genetic research. 

Meduza has learned that the Russian government could allocate 230 billion rubles ($3 billion) to this work in the coming years. Most of this spending (127 billion rubles, or $1.7 billion, before 2027) has been earmarked for a federal science and technology program to develop genetic technologies. The rest of the money will go towards building new genome-editing technologies.

President Putin is personally overseeing the program’s implementation, and some of his closest friends and relatives are directly involved in the work.

part 1

Winning over the president

Back in 2017, Vladimir Putin proclaimed that certain foreigners were working “professionally” with unknown aims to collect “biomaterials” from people across Russia, gathering samples from different ethnic groups in different locations. “The question is why,” the president warned.

Multiple sources told Meduza that scary stories and bogeymen like the great “biomaterial collection” are what drive the Russian authorities’ interest in genetics. “Putin fears gene weapons, thinking they could be used in Russia,” laughed one geneticist, who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity. 

Biologist Valery Ilyinsky, the founder of the DNA testing company “Genotek,” calls gene weapons “utter absurdity” and “the stuff of science fiction movies.” “It’s impossible to tailor it for one ethnicity — it would be a ‘gun’ that fires at the planet’s entire population,” he explained to Meduza. “A weapon as expensive to develop as it would be pointless to use,” agrees Sergey Musienko, the CEO of “Atlas Biomed Group,” another DNA testing firm.

One of the first uses of the term “gene weapon” appeared more than four decades ago in an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where the authors (which included two former Soviet officers) explored the potential development of biological weapons modeled on bacteria and viruses that could be “enhanced” by methods of recombinant DNA technologies (joining together DNA molecules from two different species) that appeared in the 1970s. The authors speculated that such a weapon could be created using an antibiotic-resistant plague pathogen. 

This kind of “gene weapon” is entirely plausible and wouldn’t even be very hard to create.

Today, however, the idea of a gene weapon typically concerns a hypothetical biological weapon that can target specific races or ethnicities, selectively affecting only “hostile” groups. This sort of thing is still impossible, relegated to the pages of science fiction and tabloids, like a bogus story printed by The Sunday Times in 1998 about an Israeli-designed “ethnic bomb” that would “harm Arabs but not Jews.” Despite the scientific obstacles, many around the world still worry that gene weapons are in secret development. The Russian authorities are particularly alarmed, sources told Meduza, and the panic has already disrupted some routine domestic work with biomaterials. 

There are technical and engineering obstacles that prevent the creation of a real-world gene weapon, as well as the fundamentals of nature — namely, the basic genetic structure of all humans — that make it infeasible even in the distant future.

For starters, civic nationality has no genetic identity. A hypothetical gene weapon would need to target DNA patterns, meaning that one of these biological agents would inevitably spill over national boundaries, making even the most refined gene weapon a danger to citizens of any country, including people of mixed heritage. Furthermore, ethnicity itself doesn’t really manifest at the genetic level. Between even the most remote and isolated human populations, the differences are neutral: the frequency of some gene variants differs but qualitative traits do not. Humanity’s shared genetic makeup makes it impossible to create precision weapons that single out specific ethnicities.

There is, of course, the science of genetic ancestry testing. In 2008, a team of American researchers managed to infer the geographic origin of 1,387 Europeans to within a few hundred kilometers, but this study relied on several unrealistic conditions. The analysis itself uncovered no unique markers that could be used to identify ethnic populations; scientists merely found genetic combinations that allowed them to predict some people’s geographic roots. Participation in the experiment was limited to people whose ancestors haven’t moved in three generations, and scientists tracked almost 200,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms — a processing feat that would require any gene weapon to wield a full-scale molecular computer. This kind of technology remains well beyond human science.

Despite the obstacles to making bioweapons that target specific ethnicities, it could be both feasible and relatively easy to attack a single individual with a “personalized gene weapon.” In theory, scientists should be able to use a genome-editing technology like CRISPR-Cas9 to modify natural viruses in order to aim them at the unique features of a specific person’s genome, once they’d completely mapped it. In November 2012, The Atlantic published an article titled “Hacking the President’s DNA” that described American efforts to protect Barack Obama’s genetic blueprint and “the not-too-distant future” where it’s possible to create “personalized bioweapons that could take down a president and leave no trace.”

But not everyone in Moscow grasps the impracticality of gene weapons. For instance, Mikhail Kovalchuk is a believer. He’s also the president of the Kurchatov Institute (Russia's leading research and development center in the field of nuclear energy) and the brother of Yuri Kovalchuk, the billionaire banker and one of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends.

“I’ll give you a simple example,” Mikhail Kovalchuk told members of Russia’s Federation Council in 2015. “Let’s say we create something like an artificial cell. This artificial cell, on the one hand, is medically important for diagnostics and targeted drug delivery, but it could also become something harmful. One cell with a genetic code that self-develops is actually a weapon of mass destruction.” Continuing the dark premonition, he warned that “this cell could be configured to destroy” a specific ethnic group.

Experts say Kovalchuk doesn’t understand the science here. “It’s an undeniably elegant concept: you take some unique genome feature (a so-called ‘marker’ found in members of a specific ethnic group but not in other people), and you use it as a target. Then you make a virus that infects only the people carrying this target. It’s a futile idea, however, because these markers simply don’t exist,” insists Oleg Balanovsky, the head of the Genogeography Group at the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics. “Specialists in population genetics once theoretically predicted [ethnic genome markers], but now, having fully mapped the genomes of people from different ethnicities, we’ve confirmed in practice that none of the three billion letters of our genome has the properties of any genetic target,” Balanovsky explained in an essay three years ago.

Unmoved by the testimony of three billion nucleotides, Vladimir Putin addressed the supposed threat of gene weapons in 2018 during his speech at the annual Valdai Discussion Forum, saying that experiments on rats and dogs in the Republic of Georgia were already underway. Researchers, the president warned, were developing ways to target people in specific ethnic groups, which could trigger a new arms race. “We ought to sit down and work out some common rules in this extremely sensitive area,” he said.

For information about genetics, Putin has also relied on adviser Andrey Fursenko, who served as Russia’s education and science minister from 2004 until 2012. Fursenko is a good friend of the Kovalchuk brothers and a member of the “Ozero” dacha housing cooperative that’s associated with Putin’s inner circle. A source close to the Kremlin with knowledge of the Putin administration’s plans to develop genetic technologies told Meduza that Fursenko cares less about gene weapons than CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing — an engineering technique in molecular biology that allows humans to modify living organisms. Russia’s intelligence community is also reportedly interested in the technology and could be feeding the president information about it, as well. Putin is apparently on board.

According to two engineers involved in the project and a source close to the Kremlin, it was Fursenko who proposed the federal program to develop Russian genetics research that Putin approved. Spokespeople for Fursenko and the president declined to comment. 

After sounding the alarm in his remarks at the Valdai Forum, Putin issued an executive order to develop Russia’s genetics technologies. In April 2019, the government approved a federal research-engineering program (FNTP) to advance the country’s study of genetics, allocating 127 billion rubles ($1.7 billion) over the next eight years (111 billion in federal money plus resources from regional governments and extrabudgetary sources). In 2019 and 2020, the program received 19.2 billion rubles ($250.4 million) in federal funding, most of which came from the budgets for existing state programs. This sum represents about 2.7 percent of all federal funding for Russia’s non-military scientific research.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Andrey Furskenko
Mikhail Metzel / TASS

Structurally, Russia’s new research initiative comprises four core components: security, medicine, agriculture, and industrial microbiology. According to a source who helped design the program, Kremlin officials encouraged the experts responsible for drafting the genetics program to include “security” because it would be the easiest way to get money from Putin. Meduza’s source says the administration’s advice was to make it “sexy” by avoiding arcane scientific jargon.

In private, the scientists later joked about the fantastical gene weapons the president likely imagined when signing their proposal.

Dmitry Kuprash, a molecular biologist and research group leader at the Engelhardt Institute, told Meduza that scientists built the program’s “security” component around dangerous infections. “Nobody was thinking about COVID back then, of course, but they were already thinking about the Ebola virus and SARS and MERS. In this part [of the proposal], they outlined a plan to ensure technological independence — basically, security in a broader sense,” recalls Kuprash. “We need to be able to manufacture our own chemical agents and equipment and safeguard Russia’s genetic technologies, in case it all goes sideways and we’re totally cut off by sanctions.”

part 2

Editing people

To create Russia’s new genetics program, Andrey Furskenko recruited several young scientists, including bioinformatician Andrey Lisitsa, the head of Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Chemistry. 

Lisitsa told Meduza that scholars started designing the project in 2017 and presented their work (“A Postgenomic Highway”) in 2018, drawing closely from a genetics program drafted by Yuri Ovchinnikov, a decorated Soviet biochemist whose work contributed significantly to the study of antibiotics and membrane proteins. (Vladimir Pasechnik and Ken Alibek, two biologists who defected to the West, have described Ovchinnikov as one of the USSR’s chief proponents of using gene technologies in biological weapons.) 

Bioinformatician Andrey Lisitsa
Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

Even at the early stage, the program’s main point of contention was gene editing in human embryos. 

“I’d like to get permission for the clinical use of CRISPR-Cas9 agents that would allow me to ‘fix’ dangerous mutations at the zygote level [a fertilized egg in its earliest stage]. Otherwise, it will inevitably lead to the birth of a child with a severe hereditary disease,” molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov told Meduza. The same scientist who sparred with Fyodor Urnov, Rebrikov also worked on the “Postgenomic Highway” program.

There are two different approaches to editing people genetically: germline therapy and somatic therapy. In the former, doctors modify the DNA in reproductive cells (like sperm or eggs), and these changes are passed down from generation to generation. “Somatic therapies,” meanwhile, target non-reproductive cells, and changes made here affect only the person who receives the gene therapy.

In theory, editing at the zygote level could cure a wide range of genetic diseases (since those changes would cascade to all other cells in the body), but this approach requires a level of technical precision that many believe is still beyond modern science.

In those early discussions about Russia’s federal research-engineering program, recalls Andrey Lisitsa, three prominent geneticists — Evgeny Ginter, Sergey Kutsev, and Vladislav Baranov — opposed Rebrikov. The scientists argued that early genome editing would cause more harm than good, and said such experiments would be inexcusable as part of any state program. Accidentally damaging human reproductive cells would result in cascading damage to all other cells and tissue in a person, warned Kutsev.

Lisitsa says the geneticists’ objections, as well as Maria Vorontsova’s reservations about the “ethical problems” of zygote editing, convinced the authorities to curtail the boundaries of the federal program, but the issue is far from settled. According to Lisitsa, scientists in the government’s program will currently limit their gene-editing work to animals and models, “coming nowhere close to people.” “We moved away from the concept of a ‘new person’ at an early stage,” he told Meduza, though he stressed that today’s experiments will build the proficiency needed to edit humans safely in the future.

It’s unclear when it will become acceptable to use these technologies to modify human beings in their earliest moments. For now, says Denis Rebrikov, the Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University is participating in the federal program by developing drugs to treat autoimmune diseases and analyzing the genome of the coronavirus “in order to identify and monitor dangerous mutations.”

The couple with hereditary hearing loss, whose embryo Rebrikov planned to edit genetically, ultimately backed out of the operation. For legal and ethical reasons, Rebrikov has struggled to patent his own genetic editing methods. 

Denis Rebrikov delivers a lecture about gene editing in humans
Sergey Vedyashkin / “Moskva” News Agency

But Rebrikov could get his chance to experiment on humans before too long.

New regulations on bioethics have gained momentum in Russia, and Science Minister Valery Falkov and experts at the Kutafin Moscow State Law University, together with Maria Vorontsova, are working on legislation in this area. The law school also recently created a special institute devoted to bioethics, partnering with the Kurchatov Institute, where Mikhail Kovalchuk serves as president. A source close to Vorontsova told Meduza that she’s currently working on a dissertation about the “intersection of genetics and endocrinology.” (Another source with ties to the Kremlin also suggested that Putin’s alleged daughter is pursuing this subject in her doctoral research.)

According to one individual who participated in the development of Russia’s federal research-engineering program, Vorontsova “worked in an endocrinology clinic” and has “close profesional ties” to the latest generation of scientists from Moscow State University. “I saw her a couple of times and I got the impression that she genuinely wanted to advance something when it comes to problems with medical genetics in Russia,” recalled Meduza’s source. “I think, at some moment, these two impulses (involving the mythical gene weapon and the very real problems with medical genetics in Russia) came together, and the president decided that something needed to be done here. So he gave the order: develop it!”

What Russia’s scientists were supposed to develop, however, was still up for debate.

part 3

Gene banks and fallbacks

Building Russia’s federal research-engineering program has had its challenges. In 2018, the working group had hit a dead end, says Lisitsa. The scientists involved couldn’t agree on a single vision. And then, once again, Mikhail Kovalchuk swooped in and rescued everything, teaching the group how to turn its “patchwork quilt” into a full-fledged federal program.

Just three nights later, a blueprint was ready. The proposed budget was now more than four times greater than initially suggested in “A Postgenomic Highway” (which called for just 30 billion rubles, or $387.6 million). Kovalchuk had gained a key role in the work to come, as well: the program designated the Kurchatov Institute as its main center. 

A source close to Kovalchuk told Meduza that the school acquired specialized genetic sequencing hardware well before the federal government’s genetics program got off the ground. (More than a decade ago, biologist Konstantin Scryabin used this equipment to sequence the first “Russian genome.”) According to Lisitsa, Russia now had the laboratories and implements needed to conduct modern genetic research independently. The country could even build its own genetic database, achieving one of Yuri Ovchinnikov’s goals for Soviet science.

After the program was adopted, one of the first projects to gain presidential approval was the creation of a biorepository in order to study the Russian population’s genetic data. In May 2020, Vladimir Putin separately ordered the formation of a “National Genetic Information Database” at the Kurchatov Institute.

“We were told that we’d still have access to our own [genetic code], in the event that we’re cut off from the global Internet,” a scientist familiar with the gene-bank project told Meduza.

Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Kovalchuk
Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

Unlike the gene banks in America and Europe, Russia’s biorepository might be “closed,” and access could be limited to domestic scientists, three sources familiar with the project told Meduza. Spokespeople for the Finance Ministry say the federal government has allocated 300 million rubles ($3.9 million) for the creation of an information and analytical system to store and process genetic information, though Prime Minister Mikhail Mushustin’s cabinet press secretary declined to comment on the subject.

The Kremlin apparently believes that researchers stand to gain from access to domestic gene banks. One source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that avoiding foreign biorepositories would help keep Russian scientists’ genetic work out of the hands of “competitors and enemies.” “I know scholars who would prefer to keep their work confidential until it’s ready,” said Meduza’s source.

In interviews, senior administrators at the Kurchatov Institute insist that a new gene bank will allow the country to centralize Russia’s genetic research data without exposing anyone’s personal information. “Nobody wants that stuff!” Mikhail Kovalchuk has assured the public.

But it’s unclear exactly what data scientists intend to store and analyze, say two sources with knowledge of the project. A prototype of the biorepository should finally be ready by 2024, with help from Russia’s Federal Security Service, according to internal documents obtained by Meduza. Spokespeople for the Kurchatov Institute declined to comment on its FSB partnership.

Meanwhile, scientists now sequencing the genomes of private clients at commercial labs express skepticism about Russia’s plans for a closed gene bank. Sergey Musienko, who manages the DNA testing firm “Atlas Biomed Group,” told Meduza that Britain’s biorepository grants everyone access to its data, believing that the benefits here to humanity outweigh any “mythical fears” about the information being used to develop a gene weapon. Asked if his company would surrender its commercial records to a Russian gene bank, Musienko said, “Of course, we won’t provide [our] data to anyone, especially while there are no regulations in place.”

The Kurchatov Institute also hosts the Kurchatov Genomic Center — one of the three “world-class genomic centers” created as part of Russia’s federal genetics program to oversee work in two of the program’s four core components: agriculture and biotechnology.

part 4

A mountain of money and a creeping sense of horror

Vladimir Putin was sold a plan to revolutionize genetic research in Russia, but that isn’t what he got. After the program’s blueprint arrived at the Science and Higher Education Ministry for final revisions, the initiative mutated into something else entirely. 

“What needs to be done? How do we raise the level of Russian genetic technologies to international standards? Let’s try to organize this!” This is the agenda Kremlin and Science Ministry officials brought to the federal research institutes working on the genetics program proposal.

Experts came up with various ideas, including the suggestion that Russia should offer an interesting project to some world-renowned foreign researcher, believing it could lead to a major breakthrough in a Russian lab. Federal officials rejected this proposition, however, arguing that any breakthroughs in Russian science need to be the work of Russian scientists. “The way the process was organized, different people collected different drafts of proposals about what could be done and how it could be structured. It all turned out a mess,” says one of the scientists who helped write the genetics program. 

One frustrated geneticist familiar with the federal program’s creation told Meduza that its genesis was “typically Russian”: “On the one hand, they want some kind of results, but then they treat science like tractor manufacturing. This country has had this system for the last 20 years. Have you seen it work yet?”

The program’s participants say the federal government decided to use scientific publications as its main criterion for project selection. This focus means that researchers hoping to receive state grant money need to meet the genetics program’s qualifications, as well as the even more demanding publication requirements built into the Putin administration’s separate Science National Project (which launched in 2018 with a budget of 635 billion rubles, or $8.2 billion). 

But scientific publications can’t be fabricated out of thin air without research experience or any existing groundwork, a source told Meduza, explaining that this approach gave the groups and research centers with anything remotely publishable the advantage in the race to join Russia’s new federal genetics program. This underwhelming work then became the basis of Russia’s entire federal initiative.

The Science Ministry’s refinements transformed an array of fantastical projects (like an idea to use CRISPR-Cas9 editing to counter an anti-Russian gene bomb) into perfectly rational (albeit prosaic) pursuits, like breeding new varieties of potatoes and sugar beets, and creating new strains for the bioremediation of wastewater. 

Meduza was unable to get the Science Ministry to comment on Russia’s federal genetics program. A spokesperson for the agency asked us to submit our questions formally in the mail. After three weeks and several letters, we received a response stating that officials still needed “more time” to prepare their answers.

The work now underway in Russia’s federal genetics program is observable in the lab reports released by the three genomic centers. Meduza obtained copies of these records and learned that Russian scientists are busy creating new oncolytic viruses to treat breast cancer, sequencing three varieties of peach, studying the wood structure of the silver birch, and building an online catalogue of pathological microorganisms. They’ve also developed new varieties of cherry plum and pears.

Russian scientists are also working on technologies directly related to gene editing, including the search for new enzymes that could potentially be used to create alternative editing techniques free from the royalties and patent battle over CRISPR-Cas9. 

For all its scientific ambition, however, the nation’s new genetics program clearly falls short of a Russian “Manhattan Project” for the simple reason that there’s no “bomb” at the center. 

This grounded approach to genetic research hasn’t exactly satisfied the expectations of the state officials who greenlit the initiative. “It’s like the guys at the top thought it would be possible to gain immortality through genetics,” joked one scientist who spoke to Meduza.

Another researcher says a feeling of horror gradually overtook many scientists involved in the federal genetics program, as interactions with state officials revealed the authorities’ “peculiar” ideas about gene editing. “They figured, if not tomorrow then in a few years’ time, they’d be able to pop into an outpatient clinic (or maybe a special clinic) and get some kind of genetic correction, and they’d live longer and never get cancer. Stuff like that. None of the experts who understands the limits of modern-day gene editing had in mind anything like that,” explained Meduza’s source. 

Advancing the technology will require more resources. So far, total spending on the federal program and its affiliated genetics projects could reach 230 billion rubles (almost $3 billion) over the course of the decade, multiple sources involved in the work told Meduza. The money is supposed to come from the federal budget and elsewhere.

Even this mountain of cash, however, is insufficient to “close the gap” with the United States, in terms of collected genetic data, says a source close to Russia’s government cabinet. Pour a trillion rubles ($13 billion) into the program and it still wouldn’t be enough to overtake the Americans. “But at least then we wouldn’t lag so far behind,” the source told Meduza. “The model proposed now and the funds that officials and state corporations are willing to allocate ensure a catastrophic lag.”

Perhaps that’s why Russia’s genetics program got a partner.

part 5

Enter Rosneft

In late 2019, President Putin decided to bring in Rosneft, asking the oil company to help accelerate progress in Russia’s genetics program. 

The Kremlin wanted Rosneft to create a special center capable of decoding the genomes of 100,000 people living in Russia (drawing mainly on the company’s own employees and their families, but also working with some patients at the Dmitry Rogachev National Research Center of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Immunology). 

A biomaterials archive at the Health and Consumer Rights Agency Central Research Institute of Epidemiology’s Molecular Diagnostics Center
Vyacheslav Prokofiev / TASS

When Igor Sechin met with Vladimir Putin in May 2020, the Rosneft CEO promised to prioritize the decoding project at its biotechnology campus and urged the president to exempt the company’s genetics spending from taxes. “Doing so would be an important incentive to increase support for investments in the development of Russia’s genetics industry,” he explained.

In public, Igor Sechin has never once (not even when meeting with Putin) revealed the size of Rosneft’s investments in gene research. (For comparison, a similar decoding effort in Britain cost more than 300 million pounds sterling, or $412.4 million.)

According to documents prepared for a presentation of several Russian genetics projects, Rosneft actually plans to decode the genomes of just 70,000 employees. Excluding the costs of building the research center and infrastructure, as well as acquiring the equipment needed to conduct the work, the oil company planned to spend 5.4 billion rubles ($71.2 million). 

So far, however, Rosneft hasn’t sequenced a single genome or even broken ground on the construction of its biotechnology campus, four sources involved in the project told Meduza.

Until the company realized how long it would take, Rosneft wanted to build everything from the ground up. The most realistic option now is to create a genomic center at the Shemyakin–Ovchinnikov Bioorganic Chemistry Institute in Moscow, explains a source close to the project. The future laboratory should cover 900 square meters (9,690 square feet) and feature its own conference hall. Initially, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was going to be in 2020, and both Putin and Sechin planned to attend, says Meduza’s source.

The Bioorganic Chemistry Institute told Meduza, however, that it’s yet to sign an agreement with Rosneft. “Everything is still under review,” said a spokesperson for the school.

Due to the project’s unique size and needs, equipment manufacturers began setting aside large numbers of special devices for the genomic center as early as the summer of 2020. Today, almost a year later, this machinery has done nothing but gather dust in warehouses. “The manufacturers are losing profits, and our project is losing its image because our only response to their [production-line] stamina is a bunch of vague phrases about starting soon,” a source close to Rosneft’s genetics project complained to Meduza.

A subsidiary nonprofit organization called “Genetic Technologies Development” is responsible for Rosneft’s role in the federal program. The well-known molecular biologist Konstantin Severinov led the group for several months before he took a job as the director of Rosneft’s “Biotechnological Campus,” which is involved in the same work. Severinov declined to speak to Meduza for this article. 

According to a source at Rosneft, the oil company’s senior management planned to invite Maria Vorontsova to join the supervisory board at Genetic Technologies Development, but executives scrapped the idea when the BBC’s Russian-language service reported in April 2020 that Rosneft had partnered with the federal government to study Russians’ “genetic breakdown.” (Litigious as ever, the company threatened to sue the BBC over the article.)

Two sources at the future genomic center told Meduza that the equipment needed to begin decoding genomes is still missing. Rosneft apparently planned to buy at least two sequencers from the British company “Oxford Nanopore” (each machine is valued at roughly $1 million), but the hardware is still sitting in a warehouse owned by “Skygen,” Oxford Nanopore’s authorized reseller in Russia. Spokespeople for Skygen wouldn’t answer Meduza’s questions about the equipment, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Documents obtained by Meduza and drafted by the working group that designed Russia’s federal genetics program indicate that Rosneft is expected to finance its genomic center entirely on its own, though the project’s total cost remained unspecified by late 2020. A source with knowledge of the work says Igor Sechin is still waiting on the tax breaks he requested from President Putin. Another individual close to the Kremlin confirms this information. “The issue is being resolved,” Russia’s Finance Ministry told Meduza. Rosneft did not respond to our questions.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Sechin has apparently taken personal control of virtually every decision at Rosneft. “He’s even setting the janitors’ wages. That’s why everything has grounded to a halt,” a source at the company told Meduza.

As a publicly traded company, moreover, Rosneft is also expected to explain to shareholders why the business continued spending such vast sums of money on genetics during an economic crisis. “We’re talking about tens of billions of rubles [hundreds of millions of dollars] a year,” says a source close to the Kremlin.

part 6

Chasing American teens

“It’s no secret that people are the new oil, and genetics today, if you will, is an especially promising grade of oil,” says Denis Rebrikov, the molecular biologist so keen to begin early-stage gene editing in humans. While Russia is rich in actual oil, however, the country suffers from a screaming lack of genetics experts, with just 340 medical geneticists and slightly more than 600 genetic scientists, according to Sergey Musienko at Atlas Biomed Group. 

Despite a shortage of DNA sequencers in Russia, there still aren’t enough experts trained to use the machines on hand, says Vladislav Baranov, a renowned researcher in the prenatal diagnosis of hereditary diseases and one of the federal genetics program’s first consultants. 

Baranov’s son works in the healthcare industry, too, both as the CEO of the “SOGAZ Clinic” and as Maria Vorontsova’s business partner at a company called “Nomeko” that specializes, according to its own website, in “introducing advanced technologies in endocrinology and genetics into medical institutions’ clinical practices.” In an interview last year, while at a conference to celebrate Baranov Sr.’s 80th birthday and discuss the applications of genetic technologies in fetal diagnostics, Vorontsova told the television network Pyatyi Kanal that genomic analysis “is already an integral part of medicine today.”

The Nomeko company also trains medical geneticists, and Vorontsova has stressed repeatedly at genetics program conferences that Russia needs more of these experts. “She said reasonable things, talking about how we shouldn’t isolate ourselves from the global scientific community, about cooperation, and about a lack of geneticists, as well,” recalls Maria Logacheva, a specialist in plant genetics. (Maria Vorontsova declined to speak to Meduza.)

Like so much else in the program, the task of preparing Russia’s new genetics workforce falls to Rosneft. President Putin’s family and friends have parts to play, as well.

In September 2020, Rosneft and Moscow State University (MGU) opened a master’s program in “genomics and human health,” hiring molecular biologist and MGU Deputy Vice-Provost Pyotr Kamensky as coordinator. Kamensky told Meduza that the oil company first approached the school about starting the master’s program in March 2020. “Normally, we would have launched after a year, but we decided to act more quickly because of how motivated they were at Rosneft,” says Kamensky.

In the rush to begin the program, administrators fell three months behind on the 50,000-ruble ($660) stipends promised to participants. (Some students ended up moonlighting for cash, while others got help from their parents.)

Moscow State University Provost Victor Sadovnichy meets with Rosneft Vice President Pavel Fyodorov and microbiologist Konstantin Severinov (from right to left)

The university advertised the new program on its website and received 30 applications, admitting just 10 people (mostly young women). The curriculum includes genomics, bioinformatics, the English language, and lab exercises using DNA sequencers. Microbiologist Konstantin Severinov teaches a seminar on the analysis of articles published in the Western scientific press, and geneticist Evgeny Rogaev, whose research has led to breakthroughs in the study of Alzheimer's Disease, heads the entire program. 

“Our colleagues from Rosneft wanted us to train genome specialists — people who can read genomes and understand what’s written there. In other words, what’s needed here is bioinformatics, genomics, and new methods. As far as I know, this had never been done before in Russia — not with everything brought together like this,” Pyotr Kamensky told Meduza.

Lab work at the Bochkov Research Center for Medical Genetics, where researchers are studying the possibility of treating cystic fibrosis using genome editing methods
Alexander Avilov / “Moskva” News Agency

Two sources who participated in MGU’s genomics program say the annual budget is roughly 12 million rubles (about $160,000) and there’s currently enough money to run the program for two years. After graduating, the students hope to find jobs at Rosneft’s genome sequencing center (once it’s finally opened). 

The working group responsible for coordinating education outreach in Russia’s federal genetics program has big plans to promote the field in universities and schools across the country, based on internal records obtained by Meduza. Two sources say the discussion about outreach to universities includes staff from the company “Innopraktika,” a nonprofit organization headed by Katerina Tikhonova, another of Vladimir Putin’s alleged daughters. 

To bring genetics into grade schools, Russia will rely in part on the “Talent and Success” Educational Foundation — an organization founded by Sergey Roldugin, the cellist identified in the “Panama Papers” as the "secret caretaker" of Putin's hidden wealth. The group is planning training modules at several different levels, including introductory lessons in genetics, Mendelian inheritance, evolutionary biology, population studies, and so on. “The idea is to make it accessible to everyone, in any city or small town,” Alexey Gorbachev, the foundation’s deputy chairman, told Meduza.

Today’s schoolchildren are probably the best hope for a well-funded federal genetics program. When the blueprint was still coming together, officials said repeatedly that the past should be forgotten and that Russia’s focus must be on the future, recalls one source who helped develop the program. “Otherwise, we’ll be overtaken by American teenagers who will soon be doing this stuff out of their garages. There were conversations like that,” says the scientist. “We can’t fall behind them, and it would be best of all to jump ahead.”

Story by Svetlana Reiter, Alexander Ershov, and Farida Rustamova, edited by Valery Igumenov

Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock

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