Why do peo­ple in Rus­sia — unlike cit­i­zens of oth­er coun­tries — actu­al­ly sab­o­tage vac­ci­na­tion, while the epi­dem­ic seems to be gain­ing momen­tum again? After read­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion “Oper­a­tion E” in Novaya Gaze­ta (by Iri­na Tumako­va) the rea­son becomes clear­er: the state itself is doing every­thing to pre­vent cit­i­zens from trust­ing it…

The author of the inves­ti­ga­tion recre­ates in detail the sto­ry of the birth, test­ing and imple­men­ta­tion of the “100% effec­tive and safe, and even the most effec­tive in the world vac­cine” — this is how the staff of “Vec­tor” (Novosi­birsk State Research Cen­ter for Virol­o­gy and Biotech­nol­o­gy), assessed their own brain­child Epi­Vac­Coro­na from the begin­ning This sto­ry reminds us of the tale of the Naked King, played out by sci­en­tists and med­ical offi­cials. More­over, not only the rep­u­ta­tion of all those involved, but also peo­ple’s health is at stake.

The pro­tag­o­nists are:

- Rinat Maksyu­tov, Gen­er­al Direc­tor of Novosi­birsk State Research Cen­ter “Vec­tor” and the cre­ator of the Epi­Vac­Coro­na vaccine;

- Alexan­der Ryzhikov (Ryzhikov the father), head of the Depart­ment of Zoonot­ic Infec­tions of the State Research Cen­ter “Vec­tor” and the main author of EpiVacCorona;

- Evge­ny Ryzhikov (Ryzhikov-son); busi­ness­man, founder and direc­tor of “Epi­Vac” LLC;

- and, final­ly, the co-author of the vac­cine and also the head of the reg­u­la­to­ry agency Rospotreb­nad­zor, Anna Popo­va.

By the way, it was in response to the jour­nal­is­tic inquiry of Novaya Gaze­ta relat­ed to this pub­li­ca­tion that Rospotreb­nad­zor for the first time offi­cial­ly acknowl­edged that Anna Popo­va, indi­cat­ed in the patent for Epi­Vac­Coro­na as a co-author, is not just a “full name­sake” of the head of the reg­u­la­to­ry agency, as jour­nal­ists used to write about her. She is that very head. “As a doc­tor of med­ical sci­ences, Anna Yuriev­na Popo­va par­tic­i­pat­ed in the devel­op­ment of the drug in the aspect of the appli­ca­tion of the vac­cine in the pop­u­la­tion”, — her sub­or­di­nates explained. And the jour­nal­ist spec­i­fies that by pro­fes­sion Popo­va is not a biol­o­gist, but a hygien­ist, since 1994 her career was pure­ly admin­is­tra­tive and was built in the san­i­tary-epi­demi­o­log­i­cal ser­vice. She did her PhD and doc­tor­al stud­ies in ecol­o­gy.… Well, and in the fact that Popo­va is asso­ci­at­ed with the cre­ation and, appar­ent­ly, the pro­mo­tion of the drug, which, she has to con­trol in her capac­i­ty of Rospotreb­nad­zor boss,  the depart­ment seems to notice no problem.

The sto­ry began with Gov­ern­ment Decree No. 723‑r of March 25, 2020. Rospotreb­nad­zor was then allo­cat­ed 1.4 bil­lion rubles “to work on the devel­op­ment of means of pre­ven­tion and diag­nos­tics of a new coro­n­avirus infec­tion”. The author of the inves­ti­ga­tion is fig­ur­ing out why the project of the above­men­tioned devel­op­ers was cho­sen. After all, even the “Vec­tor”  Gen­er­al Direc­tor him­self claimed at a meet­ing with the Pres­i­dent that his insti­tute at that time had as many as six “can­di­date vac­cines” against COVID-19.

Again we turn to Rospotreb­nad­zor’s response to the jour­nal­ist’s inquiry: “The deci­sion to choose the pep­tide vac­cine Epi­Vac­Coro­na for clin­i­cal tri­als was based on the pos­i­tive results of stud­ies on lab­o­ra­to­ry ani­mals obtained by that time”. As it turned out, on rab­bits. In addi­tion, the devel­op­ers promised to cre­ate a mir­a­cle vac­cine in three months. For those who doubt­ed, Maksyu­tov had anoth­er argu­ment: this very group of authors had already made one pep­tide vac­cine — against the dis­ease caused by the Ebo­la virus, and also in a short time. How­ev­er, when the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion dug into the infor­ma­tion about the vac­cine, for which the patent was reg­is­tered in 2017, it turned out that there was no infor­ma­tion about its use and, accord­ing­ly, its suc­cess. As a source con­nect­ed to Vec­tor told the jour­nal­ist, by the time Epi­VacE­bo­la appeared, the epi­dem­ic in Guinea had end­ed, and the drug was sim­ply deemed suc­cess­ful, that’s all. More­over, accord­ing to this source, some devel­op­ers at first believed that the fate of the SARS-CoV­‑2 coro­n­avirus would be the same as that of the Ebo­la virus: the epi­dem­ic would sub­side in six months to a year, and no vac­cine would be needed.

But, as we know, it was need­ed. The author of the inves­ti­ga­tion col­lect­ed the tes­ti­monies of vol­un­teers who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the clin­i­cal tri­als. Many of them got covid already after vac­ci­na­tion and con­tact­ed Rospotreb­nad­zor. At first, the depart­ment, which is sup­posed to con­trol “Vec­tor”, sim­ply brushed them off via Face­book, say­ing that “offi­cial­ly there have been no com­plaints from cit­i­zens” and that the vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ty is just an “anony­mous chat” in one of the mes­sen­gers. By the way, peo­ple wrote in the “anony­mous chat room” under their own names and post­ed doc­u­ments scans.

The com­po­si­tion of vol­un­teers turned out to be diverse – includ­ing not only experts in ecol­o­gy, but also biol­o­gists, doc­tors, math­e­mati­cians, and sta­tis­ti­cians. Not get­ting a com­pre­hen­si­ble answer, they them­selves orga­nized an exper­i­ment to deter­mine the effec­tive­ness of the vac­cine, which cul­mi­nat­ed in a let­ter to the Min­istry of Health in March 2021. The vol­un­teers did not demand to ban the vac­cine — they com­plained about its inef­fec­tive­ness and asked the Russ­ian Min­istry of Health to orga­nize an inde­pen­dent study of the immuno­genic­i­ty of Epi­Vac­Coro­na, name­ly “to ana­lyze the viral neu­tral­iz­ing prop­er­ties of the sera of those vac­ci­nat­ed Epi­Vac­Coro­na using live SARS-CoV­‑2 coro­n­avirus”, and asked to make the results of the exper­i­ment public.

The answer from the min­istry came on April 21 and boiled down to the fact that since the vac­cine is reg­is­tered, it means that it is safe.

But the vol­un­teer testers did­n’t give up. They tried to fig­ure out the anti­bod­ies that were sup­posed to be pro­duced by vac­ci­nat­ed peo­ple, but were not found dur­ing after­vac­ci­na­tion test­ing. The devel­op­ers answered imme­di­ate­ly: there are pro­tec­tive anti­bod­ies, it’s just that “crude test sys­tems” don’t see them. They need to be checked only with a spe­cial test – the one devel­oped by “Vec­tor”. Soon, how­ev­er, it turned out that half of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the tests did not have anti­bod­ies even accord­ing to the “Vec­tor” test.

As a result, the main author of Epi­Vac­Coro­na, Alexan­der Ryzhikov, quot­ed by the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion, had to admit that a cer­tain lack of anti­bod­ies in humans com­pared to fer­rets (“the titer is two orders of mag­ni­tude low­er”) was “some­what unex­pect­ed” for him: the effec­tive­ness of the vac­cine was “low­ered” to 90 per­cent. Some­time lat­er, Ryzhikov came up with a “rad­i­cal” way to increase the effec­tive­ness of the vac­cine — he sug­gest­ed that Epi­Vac­Coro­na be vac­ci­nat­ed not twice but three times. More­over, even the most ardent crit­ics of the vac­cine did not dis­pute the safe­ty of the shots. How­ev­er, no one ques­tions the safe­ty of the place­bo either.

There are those who have fol­lowed this advice. For exam­ple, Oleg Sysuev, deputy chair­man of the board of direc­tors at Alfa Bank. He told Novaya Gaze­ta that he received the third injec­tion, after which anti­bod­ies were mirac­u­lous­ly found. And being con­fi­dent that, for him per­son­al­ly, the virus for the near future is defeat­ed, went to the cel­e­bra­tion of the 30th anniver­sary of the Union of Russ­ian Cities.  Those gath­ered for an impor­tant social event at round tables (of course, throw­ing off their masks) joy­ful­ly embraced each oth­er, toast­ing into a com­mon micro­phone. And three days lat­er, the banker Sysuev felt the worst, as he con­fessed to a jour­nal­ist, of his entire life. All in all, a pos­i­tive test, lung dam­age, and oth­er covid “joys”.

There are many curi­ous details in the inves­ti­ga­tion about the manip­u­la­tion of anti­bod­ies, and about the pecu­liar­i­ties of the vac­cine. The advan­tage of the sto­ry is that the author, inter­view­ing a huge num­ber of experts, man­aged to “trans­late” their spe­cif­ic expla­na­tions from the sci­en­tif­ic word­ing into plain lan­guage. There­fore, the text, despite the abun­dance of infor­ma­tion, reads like a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry. And by the way, the experts con­sid­er the very idea of the pep­tide vac­cine inter­est­ing and promis­ing. Their com­plaint to the devel­op­ers is that in their haste, they most like­ly made a mis­cal­cu­la­tion even at the first stage, which is nat­ur­al for any sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment. But, instead of sort­ing it out and cor­rect­ing it, they hur­ried up and “dragged” the mis­take into fur­ther developments.

If the sto­ry of the vac­cine reminds us of the fairy tale of the Naked King, then its cre­ators can by no means be called “naked”. The jour­nal­ist cites data recent­ly pub­lished by Rospotreb­nad­zor itself about the incomes of the heads of its sub­or­di­nate enter­pris­es. By a sur­pris­ing coin­ci­dence, the rich­est in 2020 was the “Vec­tor” CEO Rinat Maksyu­tov with a month­ly income of 1.2 mil­lion rubles, which is three times more than his salary in before- COVID 2019.

Novaya Gaze­ta also man­aged to find curi­ous infor­ma­tion about the Ryzhikov fam­i­ly. Accord­ing to Spark data base, the trade­marks Epi­Vac­Coro­na (since 2020) and Epi­VacE­bo­la (since 2016) are reg­is­tered as the intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty of the com­pa­ny of the direc­tor of LLC Epi­Vac, Ryzhikov Jr. The com­pa­ny, where he is not only the direc­tor but also the founder, has been in exis­tence since 2015. Evge­ny Ryzhikov is also list­ed as the cre­ator of the Epi­VacE­bo­la vac­cine. At the March (2021) meet­ing “On Increas­ing Vac­cine Pro­duc­tion and Vac­ci­na­tion Progress”, Ryzhikov Sr. intro­duced his son to Putin. The pres­i­dent respond­ed: “Alexan­der Ryzhikov can be quite proud of Yevge­ny Ryzhikov”.

This Jan­u­ary, Prime Min­is­ter Mishus­tin ordered to allo­cate anoth­er two bil­lion rubles for the pro­duc­tion of Epi­Vac­Coro­na. Accord­ing to the pub­lic pro­cure­ment web­site, the Epi­Vac com­pa­ny in Feb­ru­ary 2021 signed a con­tract with “Vec­tor” for the sup­ply of pep­tides, test sys­tems (the very ones — espe­cial­ly “thin”) and purifi­ca­tion of the car­ri­er pro­tein. It was worth 707.3 mil­lion rubles — almost half of the mon­ey allo­cat­ed from the bud­get for vac­cine pro­duc­tion. Jour­nal­ists com­pared the prices for the pep­tides spec­i­fied in the con­tract with the exist­ing prices on the glob­al mar­ket and found that “Vec­tor” was alleged­ly over­paid by about 10 times (Novaya Gaze­ta spec­i­fies that the cal­cu­la­tions made with the help of mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gists and mar­ket­ing experts are avail­able in the newsroom).

And final­ly more on the num­bers. By the end of May, two mil­lion dos­es of the Epi­Vac­Coro­na vac­cine were wait­ing for Rus­sians in vac­ci­na­tion offices. By this time, both Rospotreb­nad­zor and its sub­or­di­nate “Vek­tor” were, of course, aware of the vac­ci­na­tion results. Well, “Vec­tor” has just announced that it intend­ed to “seek inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion” for Epi­Vac­Coro­na and planned to apply to the World Health Organization…

Search tech­nolo­gies used by the author: work with data­bas­es, reg­istries, doc­u­ments and own sources; jour­nal­is­tic inquiries to all author­i­ties and com­pa­nies men­tioned in the investigation.

Tech­niques used: inter­views with experts; inter­views with vac­ci­nat­ed and over-vac­ci­nat­ed peo­ple; analy­sis and com­par­i­son of data from dif­fer­ent sources.

Expert Analy­sis and Assessment
Galina Sidorova
Gali­na Sidorova
Ask a ques­tion
Pub­lic Value
100 /100
Entire­ty of the Investigation
95 /100
100 /100
95 /100
Reli­a­bil­i­ty of Sources
95 /100
100 /100
Strengths & Weaknesses
abun­dance of infor­ma­tion and sources; exclu­siv­i­ty; pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­is­tic inquiries; fine pre­sen­ta­tion of the mate­r­i­al; easy-to-read text; inter­views are organ­i­cal­ly woven into the narrative
there are no obvi­ous draw­backs, but it would be inter­est­ing to get a direct answer from the vac­cine devel­op­er to the ques­tion whether he sees the Epi­Vac­Coro­na short­com­ings (which ones) and the pos­si­bil­i­ties to elim­i­nate them in the future