How Russia’s Federal Medical-Biological Agency is handling COVID-19

Veronika Skvortsova

At the beginning of March 2021, Russian president, Vladimir Putin had a working meeting with Head of the Federal Medical-Biological Agency, Veronika Skvortsova, on the agency’s performance in 2020 with respect to the global coronavirus.

For its mandate, the Federal Medical-Biological Agency caters for 3.5 million Russians; primarily employees of over 700 organisations with extremely hazardous working conditions and risks, their family members, and the population of 20 closed administrative territories, 39 satellite towns and science cities.

Throughout 2020 when the world was dealing with devastative effect of the novel coronavirus infection, the Federal Medical-Biological Agency set for itself some tasks which included preventing the infection from spreading, building a COVID-19 relief network plus a research and development project.

According to Dr. Skvortsova, the agency’s initial aim was to prevent the infection from spreading to other territories and to contain it at the strategic facilities with which the country’s activity is linked. In addition, the agency assisted all Russian regions, coordinated the work of the blood donor service, the procurement of anti-COVID blood supplies and also conducted research.

“Together with our partners, Rosatom, Roscosmos and the Ministry of Industry and Trade, we developed a package of measures to counter the epidemic which allowed us to ensure the uninterrupted operation of all the facilities such as nuclear power plants, to support 15 space launches from our three launch sites and to support the entire scope of search and rescue missions, even during the strict lockdown in Kazakhstan. We were also able to resume training sessions for our country’s national teams in July, without any risks, and avoid spreading the infection across the seven federal bases where the teams trained,” she added.

The agency focused on early diagnostics by expanding the network of PCR laboratories by 300 percent from 14 to 52 laboratories. The Rosatom state corporation helped to adopt the technology which led to significant increase in the workflow of each laboratory and reduced test processing times resulting in one of the highest testing rates.

The cumulative mortality rate across all Russian territories and facilities was only 0.9 percent, which is far lower than the average rate in both Russia and the world in general. In January, a vaccination campaign had been launched besides doctors and education workers prioritising essential workers at Rosatom, cosmonaut crews and members of the national sport teams to compete in the Olympic Games in July, August and September 2022, in Japan and China.

The second area of focus for the agency was building a COVID – 19 relief network by opening 53 hospitals for coronavirus patients. To ensure high quality medical care, the agency set up a network of reference centres with an headquarters at the Burnazyan Federal Medical and Biophysical Centre and eight district COVID – 19 centres, each with a rapid – response mobile crew that provides methodological, organizational and simply hands-on medical help within two hours.

Telemedicine has played a huge role during the pandemic. More than 105,000 telemedicine consultations, including over 25,000 for patients with the novel coronavirus infection have been conducted. The gravest cases, a total of 900 patients, were evacuated with more than 200 of them being transported by air ambulance.

Dr. Skvortsova indicated that as part of the agency’s mandate, it coordinate the blood service specifically monitoring blood banking and the diversity of the necessary blood components to medical facilities through integrated database.  “Unlike other countries where the number of blood donors and donations has sharply decreased due to the pandemic, we have not experienced any reduction in the volume of blood and components donated, but rather there was an increase of more than 15 percent compared to 2019,” she added.

In April 2020, a national coordination centre for the banking and clinical use of immune plasma was set up. The centre has been coordinating this effort across Russia, and it issued methodological recommendations for all regions to follow. Currently, there is over 22 tonnes of accumulated anti-COVID plasma.

On research and development projects, the agency started to develop test systems in January and the first test system was ready in March. Afterwards, there was an entire series of test kits for PCR diagnostics, antigen detection, and isothermal amplification, and enzyme immunoassay for antibodies. Every fifth test now uses a system provided by the Federal Medical-Biological Agency.

Currently, special technologies, test systems for detecting virus mutations with just an ordinary swab test, in response to concerns regarding the virus variability and the need to detect several of the most significant mutations have also been developed. The new tests do not only confirm the presence of the virus, but also identify the strains which might require special attention.

Dr. Skvortsova mentioned two new preparations; blocking virus sites and the development of a new technological platform for creating next-generation anti-COVID vaccines.

“First, we have developed a unique preparation hinging on the use of micro-RNA components that block certain RNA virus sites and those sites responsible for copying the virus molecule, or the so-called RNA-polymerase site. We called this preparation Mir-19 because the micro-RNA component is completely safe for humans and it does not affect the human genome or human immunity levels.

At the same time, it is extremely effective at destroying the virus. Experiments on animals show that their virus-carrying capacity plunges 10,000-fold. It also prevents the gravest forms of the coronavirus infection, including pneumonitis conditions and acute respiratory distress syndromes against the backdrop of the coronavirus infection,” she revealed.

The agency is developing a vaccine for dealing with virus mutations when accumulated mutations in the receptor-binding domain of the S-protein might prevent anti-bodies from bonding. The new vaccine being developed influences other protein components of the virus, rather than the S-protein. It helps expand cellular and cytotoxic immunity, rather than humoral immunity through the activation of anti-bodies. As a rule, antibody immunity lasts for months, and cellular immunity lasts several years. Certain experimental projects show that this immunity may last 13 to 17 years.

The agency has now obtained this medication’s initial formula and is currently getting ready for clinical trials hoping very much that clinical trials will be launched in the second half of 2021. The area of focus is currently completely on trend when it comes to international interests. The World Health Organisation meeting on vaccines confirmed the trend of developing next-generation vaccines early in case this virus’s mutation will prevent us from using the vaccines based on antibodies. The agency is hopeful of being ahead of the game.

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