Why the Russian Sputnik V vaccine surprised us

These days we have witnessed the publication in the prestigious journal The Lancet of the results of the clinical trial of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. These have caused a stir, is that they position this vaccine as one of the most promising in the world. Our company was taken by surprise. Here we will try to analyze why this event has been so unexpected in the western world.

Peculiarities of Russian science

Current Russian science is heir to the Soviet one and has peculiar characteristics. In the Soviet Union, science will be one of the most prestigious activities. Scientists were at the highest part of the social pyramid, they were highly respected, they possessed certain privileges compared to other professions and they were characterized by their great vocation and patriotism.

As the historian Nikolai Krementsov tells us in his essential book “Stalinist Science”, Soviet science that was forged during Stalinism was very focused on practical questions and functioned as a tool in the hands of the State, with large, highly hierarchical Centers and Institutes, financed and managed directly by the Government and controlled by the Communist Party.

In summer, scientists didn’t need to worry about bureaucracies or publishing their results in international journals. In this way, the country had an intellectual elite made up of the best brains. They were people who devoted all their efforts to build models, to obtain results and, in the biomedical sphere, to cure imprisoned. Publishing was secondary. Although much of this has changed since the Soviet Union dissolved, it is logical that inertia and contrasts with the science of the rest of the world remain.

Where has the vaccine been developed?

The Gamaleya Institute for Research in Epidemiology and Microbiology, where the Sputnik V vaccine was developed, was privately founded in 1891 and was nationalized in 1919. The date of foundation (it is one of the oldest research centers in Russia) the great tradition of Russian epidemiology and microbiology. It is currently the most important institution in the country in the field of epidemiology and has a headquarters in Moscow and nine associated centers. He is responsible for the Department of Infectious Diseases of the First Moscow State Medical University, the oldest and most important medical school in the country.

The Gamaleya Institute has already produced several vaccines. One against Ebola and another against MERS stand out, but they were never published in the international press. The reason (apart, perhaps, from the inertia of the Soviet era when not so much was published) was that the two epidemics ended abruptly. But the Russian scientists accumulated important experience that has now been very useful.

What does the Sputnik V vaccine consist of?

It is a vaccine based on an adenovirus, a type of virus that is used in gene therapy and other vaccines and that usually causes mild infections such as the common cold. The genetic material of this adenovirus is manipulated so that our cause of infection may include the information of one of the proteins of the virus against which we want to protect with the vaccine. When this modified adenovirus is introduced into the cells, they produce the “extra” protein, in this case the S protein of SARS-CoV-2. The immune system of the person who has been vaccinated recognizes this protein as foreign and will remember it. If that person becomes infected with SARS-CoV-2, the immune system will destroy the viruses, preventing the development of the disease (Figure 1).

Comparison of three adenovirus-based Covid-19 vaccines. Design: Mercedes Jiménez including previous material by Nuria Campillo.

The problem is that our immune system also develops antibodies against adenoviruses themselves, so usually only one dose is administered and the effectiveness decreases. We already know that a second dose strengthens the immune response. Of this type, “single dose,” is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that will be closely approved.

To develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, Oxford University researchers came up with them to use chimpanzee adenovirus with the end of which the human body does not attack adenovirus. For this reason, this vaccine is given two doses.

Stinks well, the researchers at the Gamaleya Institute had a different idea to be able to administer two doses of the vaccine: to use two different types of human adenovirus, one for each dose. The work is twofold, but two doses can be administered and, furthermore, the adenovirus will work better in humans and not in chimpanzees. And, as has happened, the efficacy is very high, superior to any of the other adenovirus vaccines we have so far.

The reason of the mistrust

So why have we all been wary of the Russian vaccine so far? Simply, because our information was missing. Only when the data is published


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