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Exclusive: Russia, despite theft allegations, hails deal to make UK-developed COVID-19 vaccine

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Friday unveiled a deal with AstraZeneca to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the pharmaceuticals giant and Oxford University, a move its wealth fund head said showed Moscow had no need to steal vaccine data.

Britain, Canada and the United States said on Thursday that hackers backed by the Russian state were trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world - allegations the Kremlin denied.

Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said in an interview on Friday that Moscow did not need to steal secrets as it already had a deal with AstraZeneca to manufacture the potential British vaccine in Russia.

“AstraZeneca already has an agreement.... with R-Pharm (an RDIF portfolio company) on the complete localisation and production of the Oxford vaccine in Russia,” said Dmitriev.

Alexey Repik, R-Pharm’s board chairman, said on Friday his company had signed the deal.

“There’s nothing that needs to be stolen,” Dmitriev, who is involved in coordinating Russia’s own pursuit of a vaccine, told Reuters. “It’s all going to be given to Russia.”

AstraZeneca declined to comment. It said last month it was in talks with Russia and other countries about supply deals for its potential coronavirus vaccine.

Dmitriev said Russia’s acquisition of the British-developed vaccine was designed to complement, not replace its own home-grown vaccine, the one that Moscow is focusing on developing.

Western allegations that Moscow was trying to steal vaccine secrets looked like an attempt to undermine the credibility of Russia’s own vaccine, he said, describing it as one of the world’s most promising, together with the Oxford vaccine and a Chinese-developed one.

“Those attacks show that other countries are not having an open approach, they are not happy for the Russian vaccine to succeed, and they are jealous of the Russian vaccine possibly being the first one and possibly being more efficient than others,” he said.

“It’s part of the global (vaccine) competition.”

Dmitriev has said Russia’s own vaccine is set for regulatory approval next month and to be administered to a large swath of the Russian population in September. If that happens, that would make it the first COVID-19 vaccine in the world to be approved.

The first human trial of the vaccine, a month-long test on 38 people, ended this week. Researchers concluded that it was safe for use and induced an immune response, though the strength of that response remains unclear.

A larger Phase III trial involving several thousand people is expected to begin in August after a 100-person Phase II trial wraps up on Aug. 3.

Dmitriev, who has been injected himself with the Russian vaccine, said he believed it was superior to others. He said its effect lasted longer, it was based on proven virus technology, and had so far shown no side effects including on female fertility. Reuters could not verify those assertions.

The global vaccine race was about scientific prestige, international cooperation, and Russia’s desire to vaccinate its own population as quickly as possible in order to resume full economic activity, he said.

Rolling out a vaccine would not be a big money-spinner, said Dmitriev, because the Russian-made vaccine would be sold at not-for-profit prices and be free at point of delivery inside Russia.

Russia’s interest in the Oxford vaccine, which he described as “very good”, stemmed from a desire to help international efforts to roll out a vaccine. Moscow will deliver the British-developed vaccine to other countries who want it, he said.

Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow and by Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Peter Graff/Mark Heinrich

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