Russia and the team behind its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine have strenuously denied U.K. tabloid reports that claimed Russian spies stole the “blueprint” for the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and used it to “help create” Sputnik V.
The article in question, published Monday in the Sun, said British security services had told ministers that the data was “stolen by a foreign agent in person,” and that the Sputnik jab was “copied” from AstraZeneca’s. The article tied the incident to a warning issued over a year ago by British, Canadian, and American intelligence, saying the Russian state-linked hacking group Cozy Bear had almost certainly targeted Western vaccine developers.
The Sun piece elicited a short, sharp response from the Kremlin, whose spokesman Dmitry Peskov observed that the British tabloid was “a very well-known and a very unscientific newspaper.”
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which promotes and sells Sputnik V, went considerably further in a statement issued late Monday. “U.K. media reports that Russia’s Sputnik V was allegedly based on research from the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is another fake news and blatant lie based on anonymous sources,” it thundered.
The Sun’s claims “also make absolutely no sense scientifically as Sputnik V and AstraZeneca use different platforms,” RDIF noted.
The two vaccines share similar technology, with both using modified versions of preexisting adenoviruses—a kind of virus that causes colds and bronchitis—to deliver the necessary genetic code to the recipient, triggering the immune response that provides inoculation against SARS-CoV-2. That said, there are significant differences between AstraZeneca’s vaccine and Sputnik V.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine uses a modified version of a chimpanzee adenovirus. Conversely, Sputnik V uses human adenoviruses that the jab’s developer, the Gamaleya Center, has previously used for an Ebola vaccine. Each of Sputnik V’s two doses is based on a different adenovirus, whereas all the other COVID-19 vaccines, AstraZeneca included, use the same substance repeatedly.
“We find such attacks highly unethical as they undermine the global vaccination effort,” sniffed RDIF, an outfit that has regularly used social media to attack rivals including AstraZeneca. “Rather than spreading fake stories, the U.K. media and government services should better protect the reputation of AstraZeneca, a safe and efficient vaccine that is constantly attacked by competitors in the media with facts taken out of context.”
AstraZeneca itself declined to comment on the Sun report. Meanwhile, a U.K. government spokesperson said officials had seen the article but would not “comment on matters on the intelligence front.”
“We take any such accusations of intellectual property theft and cyberattacks extremely seriously, and we’ve called out attempts in the past,” the spokesperson said.
Sputnik V has been approved for use in 70 countries now, with its most recent green light coming from Indonesian drug regulators in late August. However, it has yet to be approved by the World Health Organization, which is a precondition to its inclusion in the global COVAX vaccine-procurement scheme for low- and middle-income countries.
Notably, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) also hasn’t cleared Sputnik V yet for emergency use within the European Union; without this approval, people who have been vaccinated with Sputnik V find it more difficult to travel in the EU. The EU’s ambassador to Russia, Markus Ederer, said Friday that Russia was holding up the process by repeatedly postponing an EMA inspection in the country.
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