Russian journalist shares all you need to know about the controversial Sputnik V, which could soon be in India

Updated: 18 October, 2020 10:14 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

In his first interview to the media after deciding to take the controversial Sputnik V against COVID-19 during phase 3 of human trials, Russian journalist says, all is well

A day after he took the first shot of Sputnik V vaccine, Konstantin Rozhkov experienced mild muscle pain and fatigue
A day after he took the first shot of Sputnik V vaccine, Konstantin Rozhkov experienced mild muscle pain and fatigue

On the morning of September 21, I went to the city hospital no. 68 in Moscow. As soon as I announced myself, I was called into a room. And I got zapped," says Russian journalist and documentary filmmaker Konstantin Rozhkov, about participating in the pre-launch trial for Sputnik V, the world's first registered vaccine against COVID-19. Manufactured by Russia's Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Biology, the vaccine has established a connect with India even before launching. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) has partnered with Indian pharma firm Dr Reddy's Laboratories to conduct its clinical trials in India and distribute it.

When this writer speaks to Rozhkov, he's at the Istanbul airport on a layover to America. It's work as usual, while so many others continue to find themselves in the grip of panic and hindered by restrictions that have changed life as they knew it. Currently part of the documentary team of the state-run RT (formerly Russia Today), he remembers being on the other side a few months ago, when news of the pandemic broke. He was in Moscow with family, and airports shut down, putting a stop to his travel and assignments.

The first wave of the Coronavirus outbreak in Moscow peaked on May 17. Nationally, the epidemic peaked a day later. Like much of the Western world, Russia is now experiencing a second wave, making it the fourth-most affected country in the world, with 13,40,409 confirmed cases and 23,205 deaths (as of October 15). Rozhkov clarifies that he didn't decide to take the vaccine because it would have made for a reliable testimonial for a journalist. "The rational side of me had me do it," says the 33-year-old. "I believe that the world will open up only for those who have had the virus and are now protected by antibodies or those who got the vaccine and are no longer a danger to others. I knew I had to travel to cover the US elections in October, but America is severely affected. I didn't want to bring back the virus to my family."

A senior citizen, wearing a face mask to protect against the Coronavirus infection, waits at a bus stop in downtown Moscow on October 1. Russia is currently experiencing a second wave, making it the fourth-most affected country in the world. Pic/ Getty Images

On August 11, Russia announced that it had registered Sputnik V, its adenovirus-based vaccine candidate against COVID-19 and by September 4, the results of the phase 1 and 2 studies were published in renowned medical journal The Lancet. Rozhkov is a participant of the phase 3 human trials, which aim to vaccinate 40,000 people in Russia over a span of six months. "Anybody who is healthy can get vaccinated. I had to meet certain basic criteria, and underwent an alcohol and drug test before being shortlisted," he says, adding that since he hadn't caught the virus in the last seven months, or shown flu-like symptoms, he was a perfect candidate for the trial.

Sputnik V has been at the centre of controversy, especially among the Western media, for the pace at which it is readying to enter the market. Skeptics have highlighted that it has skipped internationally approved testing and regulatory steps. Some even accused Russian hackers of stealing data of clinical trials being conducted in other countries.

Rozhkov argues in a video he published that other vaccines in the race, being developed by Moderna and Pfizer (America), AstraZenica (British-Swedish) and Sinovac (China), are also in phase 3 of trials, making the charge against Russia to rush the vaccine baseless.

Named in homage to the world's first satellite, launched by the Soviet Union, it caught Rozhkov's fancy enough to indulge in research before he documented his experience of getting vaccinated. "The Moscow-based Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology took charge of the Sputnik V's development and clinical trials counting on their experience in studying Ebola and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), another type of Coronavirus that infects humans, bats, and camels. MERS and SARS-CoV-2 share similarities. This is not the first time that the world is seeing an outbreak of Coronavirus, so Russian developers were already in the midst of working on a vaccine for MERS. They used their research as basis for developing Sputnik V, and ended up being the first country to have made a vaccine. I think it was a fortunate coincidence."

After receiving regulatory approval in India, RDIF will provide Dr Reddy's 100 million doses of the vaccine. Reports suggest that if phase 3 trials go well, the vaccine could be available as early as next month.

A medical worker wearing protective equipment takes a swab from a woman at a medical facility in Moscow on July 16, on the first day the Russian capital started providing free testing to its citizens.PIC/AFP
A medical worker wearing protective equipment takes a swab from a woman at a medical facility in Moscow on July 16, on the first day the Russian capital started providing free testing to its citizens.PIC/AFP

When Rozhkov got the first of two shots of Sputnik V, he was asked to stay back at the city hospital facility for 30 minutes to check for side effects. "Since I was fine, I was asked to leave. But I was told that I would be monitored every day. There was this common misconception among my friends that I was now partially contagious. But that is untrue. It is important for people to know that during vaccination, doctors inject the DNA of the Coronavirus and not the virus itself into the human body. I am no danger to anyone," he says.

The next morning, however, he experienced muscle pain, slight fever, and felt fatigued. "My temperature rose slightly to 37.2 degree Celsius. It wasn't nice, but nothing unbearable either. When the doctor called to check up on me, I was asked to take a paracetamol in case the fever went higher. But I was fine and didn't feel the need. A day after this, I felt even better."

After a gap of 21 days, Rozhkov took the second shot on October 12. A day later, he experienced similar side effects lasting 24 hours. "I was ready to take a flight to the US the next day. I, like all volunteers, were told in advance about the risks involved. I have been given a medical hotline number to call incase I face extreme side effects."

Now that his course of vaccine has concluded, Rozhkov thinks the process was a cakewalk. "I am glad I did it. I think it was a reasonable decision since I am young, healthy and confident. I don't think it was as big a risk as it would have been for say, a senior citizen. But interestingly, I bumped into many 65-year-olds, who had volunteered for human trials. They could have waited for a 100 per cent approved vaccine, but chose to sign up anyway," he adds.

It was recently announced that the Sputnik V vaccine could be widely used and distributed in Russia by late October-early November. "I think volunteers in phase 1 and 2 took a bigger risk than I did since they were the first humans to take it after animal testing. I'm certain we will get through this sooner than later," says Rozhkov, who will be screened six weeks later for the presence of antibodies that establish immunity against the virus.

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First Published: 18 October, 2020 08:04 IST

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