Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine, the military input and what it may mean for the future use of biological weapons

Rod Thornton and Marina Miron

On 20 July this year, the Russian Deputy Minister of Defence, Ruslan Tsalikov, announced that his military had developed a COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus) vaccine. It was, he said, ‘ready’ to use. This was some three weeks before the world was told officially that Russia had actually licensed a vaccine.Tsalikov’s declaration had come despite the fact that this vaccine, under development for several months, had then yet to finish its Phase II trials (and involving less than 50 volunteer subjects) and before Phase III trials have even started. The Russian Health Ministry, which had been working alongside military scientists in developing the vaccine, was, at that time, quick to downplay Tsalikov’s claims. The Health Ministry’s tune, however, had to change in mid-August once it was officially declared that Russia did, indeed, have a vaccine.

Whatever the true efficacy of this Russian vaccine, it seems that it was military scientists who were the lead movers in the research behind it. But why were they leading? Why does this military still have such an interest in biological agents?

COVID-19 and the military

Russia’s military medical services have, overall, been heavily involved in efforts to control the pandemic in the country. The setting up of mobile hospitals across Russia to relieve the pressure on the overstretched civilian healthcare system has been in the hands of the Main Military Medical Directorate (GVMU).This body can call upon over military 100,000 personnel, including 23,000 doctors. The other important military-medical element, and the one concerned directly with preventing the spread of the virus, is the Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defence (RKhBZ) Troops. This force has at its disposal some 22,000 personnel, 15 mobile laboratories and 2,065 vehicles. The unit within the RKhBZ involved in actual vaccine research is the Moscow-based 48th Central Research Institute (CRI). This facility is dedicated to the study of biological weapons and their effects. In terms of COVID-19, it began its search for a vaccine in April and worked alongside the civilian National Research Centre for Epidemiology known as the Gamalei Institute. The vaccine produced by the 48th CRI and the Gamelei was initially tested on volunteer subjects accommodated at the military’s Burdenko hospital and the civilian Sechenov Medical University Hospital, both in Moscow.

The researchers at the 48th CRI (which, under various names, is over 80 years old) were able to build on a wealth of experience. This has been gained, not only from decades of military research into BW, but also from dealing with the quite significant number of outbreaks of dangerous diseases the Soviet Union/Russia has experienced down the years – the likes of plague, cholera, smallpox and anthrax. The most recent serious case the 48th CRI dealt with was an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia in 2016. In terms of specific vaccines, the 48th CRI worked on one for SARS in 2003 and was instrumental in helping develop one for Ebola. The latter was licensed by Russia and was distributed across Africa in late 2019. In terms, specifically, of COVID-19, this military institute’s researchers will also have learnt significant lessons from the experience gained by a 48th CRI detachment that was sent to Bergamo in Italy at the height of the pandemic there in March (and before it really struck Russia).

This Russian military mission to Italy (involving over 100 personnel) was patently not some minor PR exercise. It was led by the deputy head of the RKhBZ, Major-General Sergei Kikot. Among those also sent was Colonel Igor Bogomolov, the director of the 48th CRI. Alongside all the paraphernalia expected in any RKhBZ deployment – the likes of aerosol disinfection complexes, biological reconnaissance vehicles and ARS-14K decontamination vehicles – a significant level of research equipment was also sent. Included here were information processing modules, analysis and genotyping modules, and a mobile laboratory complete with overpressure facility.

The Russians left Italy on 6 May. Given the nature and scale of their deployment, accusations were made that the mission was more to investigate the COVID-19 virus than it was to help the Italian authorities.

Developing Russia’s vaccine

In regard to COVID-19 vaccine development in Russia, the early preclinical trials were on animals leading on tothe Phase I human trials that began on 18 June. About fifty volunteers had been sought and these came forward, it seems, from among the staff of the 48th CRI itself and from other military personnel (apparently, no conscripts were involved, only those serving on professional contracts). These volunteers have been lauded as heroes in the military media.

The Phase I trials were declared a success after the first group of volunteers were released from the Sechenov hospital on 15 July, with a second group following on 20 July. It was on this latter date that Tsalikov had made his abovementioned comment about the vaccine’s ‘readiness’. ‘At the time of discharge’, he said, ‘without exception, all volunteers, having received immunity from the coronavirus, felt fine. Thus, the first domestic vaccine against the new coronavirus infection is ready.’ It was the Assistant Minister of Health, Alexei Kuznetzov, who was then forced at the time to say the trials were ‘not over’. Other health officials also expressed doubts about the safety of the vaccine. But, by 11 August, this vaccine had been officially licensed for use and given the name Sputnik V. This name patently being a nod to the Soviet Union being the first country to put a satellite into orbit and now Russia was the first to license a COVID-19 vaccine.

The 48th CRI’s role

In the West, COVID-19 vaccine research is in the hands of top civilian universities and respected medical institutes. Military epidemiological research institutes such as Fort Detrick in the United States and, in the United Kingdom, Porton Down (although now a civilian agency), do not seem to have had any input at all into vaccine development. In Russia, in contrast, the 48th CRI comes across as the lead actor. This institute, in epidemiological research terms, must, it seems, come close to matching the capabilities of the likes of Oxford or Harvard universities. As such, it must be very well funded and resourced. But why would an arm of the military that is devoted to the study of the effects of biological weapons (BW) be so well endowed? Epidemiological research has, it would seem, to be a very important Russian military asset. In this light, it should be remembered what the 48th CRI is for – what its ‘day job’ is. As one Russian journalist put it, making the link between the 48th CRI’s core mission and COVID-19, ‘What appears to be a pandemic for civilian doctors looks like a consequence of the use of weapons of mass destruction for the military.’

Of course, it has to be accepted that the 48th CRI, as advertised in Russia, exists only to mitigate the effects of BW used against Russia by other state actors – and not to itself develop such weapons for use by the Russian military. The use of the word ‘defence’ in the title of the 48th CRI’s parent body, the RKhBZ, should also be noted. The ‘Z’ here is for zashchita – i.e. ‘defence’. Indeed, Russian journalists reporting on the role of the 48th CRI in creating a COVID-19 vaccine seem to feel it necessary to make the point that the RKhBZ and its sub-units are not in the field of weaponising pathogens, merely of defending against them. In one media article, for example, it is pointed out that, in the past, the Soviet Union did, indeed, develop BW (involving plague, anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and brucellosis). But this is ‘blamed’, however, not on the Soviet military, but on a civilian firm, NPO Biopreparat. The Soviet military itself is portrayed as having played no part in the development of such pathogens. The task of the Soviet forerunners of the RKhBZ and the 48th CRI was merely, it is being said, to prepare defences against these agents – including finding vaccines.

It might be asked, though, in that case, why the work of the 48th CRI seems to be so secretive. One can go to the website of the Russian Ministry of Defence and find information about all of the military’s research organizations. The one responsible, for instance, for the development of precision weapons – the 46th CRI – might be looked upon as quite sensitive. There is still, however, a good deal of information provided on its website. In contrast, the website page for the 48th CRI has nothing on it ­– bar the institution’s address in Moscow. Why is the Russian military far more open about the development of precision weapons – which are patently offensive – than it is about a body that purports to be merely ‘defensive’; that is, which only conducts research into mitigating the effects of BW?

The Russian view of biological weapons

Even though BW are banned under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972, it is very clear from Russian military writings that it takes the issue of their use in any future peer-state conflict very seriously. A recent (2019) article, for instance, in the leading journal of the Russian armed forces, Military Thought, sums up the general view in terms of the use of weapons of mass destruction, including BW. (Articles will only appear in Military Thought if their subject matter falls into line with the generally accepted views within the hierarchy of the Russian military.) Written by four colonels, it noted that it was ‘impossible to exclude the possibility of employment of chemical and biological weapons by a potential adversary’ in any future conflict. The usual tropes are rolled out in this article about the ‘United States’ (and ‘London’) not keeping to international conventions – in this case, the BWC. The U.S. military is said to be not only still storing biological agents but also preparing drones to distribute them. The clear implication is that the United States is expected to use biological agents in any future conflict. The Russian military should, therefore, this article points out, be better prepared to both protect itself and, indeed, the Russian population. 

However, when reading such articles in Russian military journals it is always wise to be aware of the Aesopian language often used and thus of the need to ‘reverse engineer’ what is being written. That is, if BW are seen as important enough for Western militaries to have, and to possibly employ, then it must also be supposed that they represent an effective offensive tool. And if they are effective, the sub-text has to be that BW are something that the Russian military should itself have at its own disposal. Included here would be a new generation of BW possibly emerging using synthetic biology and gene editing.

Clearly, this military is, indeed, becoming better prepared for the use of BW in any future conflict. There is not only the work of the 48th CRI, but also recent investment in its parent body, the RKhBZ (including new equipment).But here again, there must be two sides to this coin. If the Russian military is taking steps to better defend against BW, why then would it not also be preparing its own? Moreover, and suspending cynicism, even if the Russian military does not wish to employ them offensively then the thinking surely has to be that the best defence against them being used by the U.S. against the Russian military and Russia itself is through ‘deterrence by punishment’. That is, if Russia can threaten to reply to any BW attack against it by using, in turn, its own BW, then any adversary would think twice before employing such an attack. The logic seems inescapable.

As the work of the 48th CRI clearly shows, the Russian military is certainly capable of playing a major role in the development of a vaccine against a ‘biological threat’ such as COVID-19. A vaccine appears to have been ‘ready’ even before basic trials were completed. If this speaks of a military that is capable of preparing epidemiological defences very quickly, does it not also speak of one that must be capable of both developing and deploying its own BW?

Some of the research for this article comes courtesy of a British Academy COVID-19 Small Grant

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