Fortune - Russia has big plans for the Sputnik vaccine, and big warnings for ‘the Big Pharma lobby’: cut out the attacks

This week, the team behind Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine said the single-dose version of the jab—named Sputnik Light—was 70% effective against the Delta variant three months after injection.

The data is yet to be peer-reviewed, but its early release gives the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is bankrolling the Sputnik effort, a chance to pitch the Light version as a booster, or as a one-shot vaccine (Sputnik Light is essentially the first of the two Sputnik V doses, which are different substances) for those who have previously been infected.

Following Wednesday's announcement, Fortune spoke to the head of the sovereign wealth fund, Kirill Dmitriev, about Sputnik Light and about Russia's international vaccine campaign in general. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How does Sputnik Light sit in your portfolio? Is it an adjunct to the main Sputnik V vaccine, or its successor?

Kirill Dmitriev: The main product remains Sputnik V, but if you fast forward a year from now, Sputnik Light will become the main product, because a year from now people will either have been vaccinated, or have had COVID before. We believe that Sputnik Light is the ultimate booster for other vaccines. First of all, the Sputnik team has been the pioneer for heterogeneous boosting, where you mix and match different vaccines. Sputnik itself is a combo—we were the first in the world, and unique, to say if you combine different shots it's better.

You can think of Sputnik Light as a standalone vaccine covid 19, with 70% efficacy in month three against Delta, which is by the way higher than the efficacy of two shots of mRNA vaccines. So our Sputnik Light, as a standalone vaccine, is very successful. But we will have trials with all other vaccines to show it is an effective booster.

Sputnik's production has been unusual in that you've regularly used contract manufacturers in countries such as Kazakhstan and India. Has this been challenging in terms of consistent standards and safety?

Yes, it is a challenge, and basically we have to do it because production capacity in Russia is somewhat satisfy international demand we needed to have capacity outside. We have now built partnerships in 13 countries with 24 producers. Those producers are top-notch—one is the Serum Institute of India, which is the largest vaccine producer in the world. [The vaccines go] through several quality control points by the producer and everything is checked again in Russia. So we check complete adherence to the process, and we always check the end product so we are sure of the quality of the vaccine.

While this approach has some challenges, it is the right approach because we fully transferred our technology to 13 countries to enable them to become vaccine producers. We are proud of this partnership approach—from day one, we didn't try to say 'Oh no we will just fill and finish' [i.e. contracting others to fill and package the dose vials]…We believe this is the right model and other players are sort of following it just now.

Larger vaccine makers are indeed signing up more manufacturers these days, in the context of heavy international criticism over vaccine inequality. What is your view on that debate and the vaccine patent waiver that many are calling for, but that most pharma firms oppose?

We believe it is possible to have patent waivers, following the rules of the WTO, so it's not just random things but all within the WTO process. We [already] transferred our technology to lots of countries, so we are much more open there.

One thing where I can understand some of the other producers' point of view is they say, 'Even if people get all of our patents now, it will take them three or four years to recreate our technology, [which is] not the fastest solution to the pandemic.' At the end of the day we believe that we should enable different countries to be able to produce, to address this issue of vaccine inequality [which] is not just an inequality issue—it's also an issue of greater [risk] of mutations. It's in the interest of the whole world to have as much vaccination as soon as possible; if we have to do patent waivers for this, we are much more open.

What is going on with Sputnik's application with the European Medicines Agency? The EU ambassador to Russia recently claimed Russia was repeatedly postponing necessary inspections.

First of all, we need to recognize that different manufacturers face different barriers in different markets. For example, AstraZeneca is still not allowed in the U.S. even though it's allowed in the European Union and other nations. Unfortunately, as with other important products, there are innate barriers in different markets… basically the western world favors western manufacturers. This being said, we find the EMA team is very professional. They had a good visit; they looked at clinical trial data and they didn't have any critical comments. We see some comments from the political side, from some of the politicians who say Europe shouldn’t have the Russian vaccines, but we don't see it from EMA. We expect them to come back in the fall and complete the inspection.

This being said, we are registered in 70 countries with a population of 4 billion people. [EMA approval] is important to us, but we have a vaccine that has been registered in 70 countries. Now we believe we will get EMA approval, but some people think it’s a big stamp of confidence—well, we have a big stamp of confidence from 4 billion people.

Your EMA application is only for Sputnik V, not for Sputnik Light, right?

The way it’s structured is as Sputnik V approval...It will not be an automatic acceptance of Sputnik Light but we believe, the way it is structured, it will speed up the Sputnik Light acceptance as well.

When reports recently claimed Sputnik V was inspired by a stolen AstraZeneca "blueprint," the RDIF hit back by saying attacks on vaccines undermined the overall vaccination effort. Yet Sputnik V's social media accounts have regularly attacked rival vaccines. What is your strategy there? Will you keep attacking rivals?

First of all, I don’t see our social media attacking any vaccines at all...For some companies it's a modus operandi and we believe it's a modus operandi that was engaged against Sputnik from day one. We were consistently attacked by political people, by some Big Pharma companies, so the only way that our social team can do is to highlight some of the facts...Sputnik is the most attacked vaccine because of the Big Pharma lobby and because of some of the political anti-Russia lobby, which is just something we have to deal with, and we do it with a smile because we understand that we are not fighting for us, we are fighting for the people whom we protect with Sputnik.

Russia's promotion of Sputnik V has sometimes been categorized as "vaccine diplomacy." Has Sputnik V been successful as a diplomatic effort for Russia?

We don’t look at it as a diplomatic success; we look at it as a humanitarian success. Yes, we had some issues which we had to overcome: we had less production three or four months ago than now, but now we have increased production in Russia and abroad. At the end of the day we genuinely measure our success by the humanitarian contribution of saving lives.

You mentioned production there. I have asked the RDIF several times for production and delivery figures but have never received them. Can you share anything now?

Today's your lucky day. By the end of the year, we are on track to produce enough doses for 700 million people of vector vaccine covid RDIF Sputnik V and Sputnik Light. Russia now produces doses for more than 40 million people of Sputnik V a month and around 60 million of Sputnik Light a month. From October, we will have more production at our international facilities than in Russia. This is basically where we are. Next year we expect to supply around 1 billion people's doses. We are not trying to be the main player, but we definitely want to make a contribution.

Message has been successfully sent!

Thank you!
You have been subscribed