Russia shows off new Covid-19 vaccine factory even as its people hesitate to get vaccinated


CNN gained exclusive access to the facility, which now houses Generium Pharmaceutical, which has been contracted to increase production of the Russian Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V.

The vast high-tech complex is one of seven new production centers across the country.

Every step in the production process had to be carefully designed and calibrated, including the vast water filtration systems, to mass produce the new vaccine.

“In principle, the manufacturing process was known on a small laboratory scale, but doing it on a large industrial scale is another universe,” Dmitry Poteryaev, Generium’s chief scientific officer, told CNN.

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“You cannot just go from a liter of bioreactor to 100 liters or 1000 or 1 ton of bioreactor. Each process is different, oxygenation is different, the mass balance is different,” he explained.

He said those problems had been overcome several months ago and the factory was now ready to increase production even further.

“Now, we are producing several million doses every month and we hope to get even more, maybe 10 or 20 million per month,” Poteryaev said.

Sputnik V boxes are stored cold before shipment.

In cavernous cold stores, with temperatures even colder than the frigid Russian winter, Sputnik V vials are packed in boxes, awaiting distribution. Each vial has its own unique QR code, they tell us, so it can be traced to individual patients no matter where in the world they are.

The vaccine has become one of the most reserved in the world, with at least 30 countries, from Argentina to the Philippines, signing contracts for nearly 2.5 billion doses so far, according to figures from the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). responsible for the production and worldwide distribution of the vaccine.

Hesitation at home

But the demand among Russians for Sputnik V so far has proven to be much less enthusiastic.

This is a country with one of the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections in the world: more than 4.1 million cases and counting. But it also has one of the highest vaccine hesitancy rates in the world. A recent opinion poll, published by the independent Levada Center, indicated that only 38% of Russians are willing to get vaccinated.

Earlier this month, one of the key scientists behind the vaccine’s development said that around 2.2 million people – less than 2% of the Russian population – had received at least the initial dose of the two-injection regimen.

Millions of doses of Sputnik V are already produced every month at the Generium Pharmaceutical plant.
Sputnik V was the first Covid-19 vaccine approved for use anywhere in the world last August, even before large-scale human trials were completed.
There was widespread early skepticism about Sputnik V, which took its name from the first world satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, launching the space race with the United States. Critics say the “Putin vaccine” was designed to be another first in a global race, to project the power of the Kremlin, no matter how effective or safe it was.
The race inside Russia's coronavirus vaccine lab
But results from large-scale human trials, published and peer-reviewed in the prestigious medical journal Lancet earlier this month, showed an impressive 91.6% efficacy for the vaccine.

Still, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are running wild on the internet and are viewed by millions in Russia, according to monitoring groups. Alexander Arkhipova, a social anthropologist at a state university known as RANEPA, told CNN that many Russians have a cultural tendency to distrust the medical establishment, which is seen as a controlling arm of the government, meddling in the private lives of women. persons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to receive the vaccine.

Another reason for doubt may be that, while President Vladimir Putin said his daughter was vaccinated, she has not yet been injected.

The Kremlin has ignored questions about why, saying Putin has a vaccination scheduled and that when he is finally vaccinated, the nation will be informed.

But in a country where many people look to the Kremlin strongman as their leadership, his abstinence on the Sputnik V front is remarkable and disheartening.

Ice cream incentives

All adults with no underlying health problems in Russia are now eligible for a free vaccination. But progress in Moscow, for example, is painfully slow. In a city of more than 12 million people, fewer than 600,000 have been vaccinated so far, according to Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.

So, there is pressure to increase the numbers.

The state-funded Gamaleya Institute, where the vaccine was developed, was pleased to invite the CNN team to get the inoculation, so to speak, from the source.
People line up to receive an injection of Sputnik V at a clinic in Moscow's GUM mall.

And in Moscow, the epicenter of Russia’s coronavirus pandemic, pop-up clinics are being established.

There’s one in the upscale GUM shopping mall, a short walk from snowy Red Square, where Muscovites can browse the latest fashions in expensive boutiques, before heading upstairs to shop for Sputnik V. They even get free ice cream with every inoculation, coated in chocolate. vanilla.

GUM department store customers enjoy free ice cream after vaccination.

Staff told CNN they were vaccinating about 200 people every day. There is capacity for hundreds more.

Another clinic has been set up in a modern food hall, Depo Moscow, to encourage vaccination after a street food lunch or sushi dinner.

For lovers of classical music, there’s even one inside Helikon, a prestigious Moscow opera house, where austere tones of recorded tenors roar through the speakers as people wait for their shot.

Some people are getting the message that the vaccine is their best chance of surviving the pandemic.

Vadim Svistunov, 84, received both the initial vaccination and the booster at an opera house.

84-year-old Vadim Svistunov and his 86-year-old wife Nonna went to the opera house for the initial vaccine and the booster dose three weeks later.

“We don’t want to go up there yet,” Svistunov told CNN, gesturing toward the sky. “We’re not in a rush,” he said.

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