The mystery of the Russian Ebola vaccine

A health worker walks past a woman holding a baby at the maternity ward in the government hospital in Koidu, Kono district in eastern Sierra Leone, December 20, 2014.

A health worker walks past a woman holding a baby at the maternity ward in the government hospital in Koidu, Kono district in eastern Sierra Leone, December 20, 2014.

Reuters
Russian authorities said in January that they have a vaccine for the Ebola virus, which took thousands of lives in West Africa last year. Officials did not divulge details or how, in less than two years, researchers have developed a unique drug that has no equivalent in the world. Sources said the vaccine may have been conceived to fight biological weapons.

The Ebola epidemic hasn't hit Russia, so why did Russia need such a vaccine? How were biologists able to develop the highly effective drug they claim in just a year and a half? Russian officials declined to answer these questions, but virologists familiar with the vaccine told RIR that Soviet-era military research provided for a foundation that helped scientists to work quickly.

The answers lie in faded and unremarkable building that houses the Gamalei Scientific Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, located in a peripheral Moscow neighbourhood.

An antidote against bio-terrorism?

Microbiologists in the USSR had studied the Ebola virus and other exotic diseases in the military town of Zagorsk-6, and in a Siberian research centre, called Vektor. In the 1980s these studies were used to create tools for biological warfare. This research was the foundation used to manufacture the vaccine that was proclaimed in January.

Professor Mikhail Schelkanov at the Far Eastern Federal University was among the first group of specialists sent to Guinea in the summer of 2014 to set up a microbiological centre. He said geopolitics was the primary reason for creating the vaccine.

"Nigeria, with its high population density, is close to the epidemic's epicentre. Meanwhile, the Boko Harem terrorist organization is active in the country,'' Schelkanov told RIR. "Essentially, this is the West African arm of the infamous Islamic State. If a biological weapon based on the Ebola virus falls into the hands of these religious fanatics, the consequences for the world will be very serious.

"The Gamalei Institute vaccine was created not only with the help of Soviet-era military research, but also with material that we collected over the past 18 months in Guinea," he said.

Another secret vaccine

There is another vaccine in addition to the one manufactured by the Gamalei Institute, developed by the Vektor Novosibirsk Centre for Virology and Biotechnology.

Asked about Vektor's research, Anna Popova, press secretary at Russia’s consumer rights watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, confirmed that the vaccine has indeed been created and is now being clinically tested. A source who spoke anonymously said that the vaccine is effective, and that it was created based on another technology.

How does the vaccine work?

"The vaccine was manufactured on the base of a virus technology that has been mastered in Russia," explained one of its developers, Denis Logunov. "It is sometimes called the rose without thorns." 

The way the vaccine works is like this: the antigen used to induce an immune response to Ebola or another dangerous virus is implanted into a harmless virus, which is then introduced into the human body. In addition to the main vaccine, scientists have also created a varient for people with HIV.

Virologist Sergei Netesov, who tested vaccines against Hepatitis A in the mid 1990s, believes that given the paucity of information available, the vaccine in question has probably only passed the first phase of testing out of the necessary three.

Clinical testing has already been done, according to the Gamalei Institute. "There were 92 volunteers, including understudies," said virologist Yana Simakova, who directed the tests. She told RIR that, in laboratory conditions, the vaccine demonstrated "100 percent effectiveness." The institute has said it would shortly publish the data to confirm its claims.

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