Namibia-Russia ties – a gain for Covid-19 vaccine

By Shallot Mohutege

NAMIBIA’S historical strong bilateral relations with Russia could be an advantage in gaining from the Coronavirus vaccine after the Russian Federation became the first country to register the vaccine against Covid-19. 

In an exclusive interview, Valeriy Utkin, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Namibia hinted that Namibia was welcome to submit its request when the vaccine supplies begin in November 2020. 

Confidente’s conversation with Utkin delved into how Russian scientists made the breakthrough, the lasting immunity of the vaccine, scepticism and concerns raised by global experts on how the vaccine was developed, the distribution process of the vaccine and whether Namibia will also gain an advantage in its supply.

Confidente: As we know, on August 11, 2020 the Russian Federation became the first country to register a vaccine against the novel coronavirus Covid-19. Could you please brief us on the main features of this vaccine and the way it has been developed by Russian scientists?

Ambassador Utkin: Well, the world is facing the modern challenge of Covid-19, and intensive work is under way to develop effective vaccines to fight the pandemic. In general, the research activities cover quite a number of sectors and include viral vector-based, virus-based, nucleic acid-based and protein-based vaccines.

The Russian adenovirus vector-based vaccinehas been successfully developed by the National Research Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology (n.

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a. N.F.Gamaleya), and approvedby the Russian Ministry of Health on August 112020, thus becoming the first registered Covid-19 vaccine on the international market.

Confidente: What are the underlining reasons for naming it ‘Sputnik V’?

Ambassador Utkin: It received the name ‘Sputnik V’ as in 1957 the successful launch of the first space satellite – ‘Sputnik’- by the Soviet Union reinvigorated space research around the world.

After the start of the Covid-19 pandemic Russian researchers extracted a fragment of genetic material from novel coronavirus SARS-COV-2, which codes information about the structure of the spike S-protein, which forms the virus’ ‘crown’ and is responsible for connection with human cells. They inserted it into a familiar adenovirus vector for delivery into a human cell creating the world’sfirst Covid-19 vaccine.

Confidente: How durable is the vaccine’s immunity?

Ambassador Utkin: In order to ensure lasting immunity, Russian scientists came up with a breakthrough idea to use two different types of adenovirus vectors (rAd26 and rAd5) for the first and the second vaccinations, boosting the effect of the vaccine.The use of human adenoviruses as vectors is safe because these viruses, which cause the common cold, are not novel and have been around for thousands of years.

Before the start of clinical trials the vaccine had gone through all stages of pre-clinical trials.

Phase 1 and 2 of clinical trials of the vaccine were completed on August 1 2020. All the volunteers are feeling well now, no unforeseen or unwanted side effects were observed. The vaccine induced strong antibody and cellular immune response. Not a single participant of the current clinical trials got infected with Covid-19 after being administered with the vaccine.

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The high efficacy of the vaccine was confirmed by high precision tests for antibodies in the blood serum of volunteers, as well as the ability of the immune cells of the volunteers to activate in response to the spike S protein of the coronavirus, which indicates the formation of both antibody and cellular immune vaccine response.

Phase 3 of clinical trials involving more than 2 000 people in Russia, a number of Middle Eastern (UAE and Saudi Arabia) and Latin American countries (Brazil and Mexico)started on August 12 and is still in progress.

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Confidente: How is the vaccine patented?

Ambassador Utkin: The vaccine received a registration certificate from the Russian Ministry of Health on August 11 2020 and under emergency rules, adopted during the Covid-19 pandemic, can be used to vaccinate the population in Russia. Mass production of the vaccine is expected to start in September 2020.

The unique substance of the ‘Sputnik V’ and method of its application have a patent protection in Russia, obtained by Gamaleya National Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

Confidente: Many experts all over the globe raised concerns about the progress that Russia has made on a coronavirus vaccine. Health officials and mass media representatives from some countries expressed their scepticism that it had not been properly tested. What is your comment?

Ambassador Utkin: It seems that some people still think in terms of “a competition”.

But in fact, the ‘Sputnik V’vaccine has shown its effectiveness and safety on the outcomes of clinical trials (phase 3 of randomised clinical trials have already started in Russia and we expect that the results will be available soon). It was created on a platform that had been used for the development of a number of other vaccines for 25 years for the purpose of gene therapy. The technology is not a unique one, it is also used in the UK, China and other countries, but in our case it has its advantages.

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Experience shows that such vaccines are capable of developing long-term immunity that lasts for up to two years. According to the instruction of application, the vaccine can be used for people aged 18-60 and can be combined with other antigens, including the flu. For maximum effect, the immunisation agents have to be injected at an interval of two or three weeks, giving the immune system time to calm down after activation, provoked by the introduction of foreign substances.

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Moreover, the vaccine recipients will be monitored by doctors, and a mobile app is also being developed so patients can routinely add data about their condition and quickly inform doctors of complications, if any.

Confidente: Could you please describe the distribution process of the Russian vaccine, especially on the international markets? Do you think that Namibia will also gain an advantage in its supply? 

Ambassador Utkin: The promotion of the vaccine on the international markets has been entrusted to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is ready to discuss with international partners issues regarding pre-ordering the vaccine, its contract manufacturing including engagement of the production capacities of foreign companies, as well as possibility of technology transfer and clinical trials. Vaccine supplies are to start in November 2020. I think that any country, including Namibia, is free to submit its pertinent request.