All other work at the Gamaleya Institute was suspended and scientists and researchers were tasked with developing an effective vaccine, said the institute’s director, Alexander Gintsburg.
Promising results led to the vaccine being approved even before widespread human testing, Gintsburg insisted. That’s testing that experts say is required before any vaccine is widely used.
“It gave people a choice to either protect themselves or play roulette with a pathogen — will you get infected or not, will you die or not?” he said.
And its name — Sputnik V — harks back to the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first space satellite decades ago.
But Gintsburg told CNN the Kremlin did not give instructions to Gamaleya.
“We do not have direct communication with the Kremlin, it does not give any orders to us,” Gintsburg said. “The only link to the Kremlin [we have] is Putin Vladimir Vladimirovich’s portrait in my cabinet,” Gintsburg chuckled, referring to a picture of a younger Vladimir Putin adorning his office — a birthday gift he received 14 years ago from friends, he said.
“Our task is to isolate this pathogen and to defeat it, which is exactly what we are doing now. And, as we all very well know, it can only be defeated with the help of vaccination.”
As well as skipping large-scale human tests before approval, Russian soldiers were used as “volunteers” in early trials and, the Institute’s director even injected himself and his staff with the experimental vaccine, CNN learned, as early as April.
“We vaccinated ourselves and our staff. Primarily, the staff that participate in developing this vaccine product. I don’t have that many staffers, so I value every employee very much,” Gintsburg told CNN. “An illness of any members of the staff would be a hard blow not just to me personally but also for our workflow. I couldn’t allow this to happen, to lose any of our staffers as a result of being infected by Covid-19.”
“Maybe we should ask the relatives of those who died if they would have preferred to vaccinate their loved ones with a vaccine that demonstrated brilliant early results and no side effects, or to wait until the end of the trials for these results to be confirmed, I believe the answer to this question is obvious,” he added.
After months of requests, CNN was allowed an exclusive tour inside the actual labs where the vaccine was developed.
Researchers wearing gloves and white coats were working on Sputnik V in buildings that have been used for scientific research since the Soviet era.
The head of the laboratory, Vladimir Gushchin, said the team used their expertise, in addition to knowledge and techniques honed in vaccine development for other diseases to perhaps get an edge over international pharmaceutical companies also looking to create a Covid-19 vaccine.
And he said the focus purely on beating coronavirus was vital.
“What’s the secret? I think the secret is when your team is really involved, concentration on this process. In many pharma firms you have different projects in which you are involved. But here (we) concentrate on this special task, people are ready to stay here overnight.”
Russia’s sovereign wealth fund (RDIF), which has funded the vaccine production, has announced deals to supply hundreds of millions of doses of Sputnik V to countries around the world.
“Now would be a good time for the US to seriously consider the Russian vaccine to defend themselves against Covid-19,” he said. “Trump would not be in this situation if he’d been vaccinated with Sputnik V.”
The Kremlin now says Putin himself may soon take the vaccine, ahead of a possible trip to South Korea. He would become the latest high-profile Russian to take Sputnik-V including the defense minister, the mayor of Moscow and, according to Putin, one of his own daughters.
But the vaccine’s creator does not appear fazed.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Gintsburg said,” I just feel a certain responsibility for the vaccine product, and I will feel it all my life.”
CNN’s Anna Chernova in Moscow contributed to this story.