A medical worker administers a shot of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Gostinny Dvor, a huge exhibition place in Moscow, Russia.

Russia tests vaccine science by combining Sputnik and Astrazeneca in new trial

Judy Twigg, a global public health expert at Virginia Commonwealth University, joins The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the science behind Russia's new vaccine cocktail.

The World

In Russia, there's a green light for a new vaccine trial.

The idea is to combine a first dose of the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, with a second dose of the British AstraZeneca shot. 

The country’s registry of approved clinical trials shows the small study was scheduled to start July 26 and will enroll 150 volunteers. 

Related: Immunized but banned: EU says not all COVID vaccines equal

Russia still has a lot of jabs left to give. Only about 20% of Russians have been vaccinated with a high prevalence of vaccine hesitancy across Russia. 

Judy Twigg, a global public health expert at Virginia Commonwealth University, joins The World's Marco Werman to discuss the science behind this trial.

Related: Vaccine mandates aren't new. But do they work?

Twigg, who specializes in public health in Russia and Eurasia, also shares her views on the current state of the pandemic in Russia. 

Marco Werman: Generally, what is the current state of the pandemic in Russia? 
Judy Twigg: They've been hit pretty hard with the delta variant, so caseloads and deaths from COVID-19 have increased significantly over the last month to six weeks. Vaccine rates are incredibly low. Opinion polls show somewhere between 50% to 60% of the population says they will not get vaccinated under any circumstances. When this new wave of the delta variant hit about six weeks ago, the government started to take some more proactive measures in trying to get people vaccinated. And yet, they still seem to be roughly around a ceiling of about a quarter of people with at least one shot and only about 16% of people that have had both doses.
So, that's the background for this trial that will start with a first dose of Sputnik, followed by a second dose of AstraZeneca. What are health experts in Russia hoping to learn? 
Obviously, they're hoping to learn some science. The AstraZeneca vaccine and the Sputnik vaccine are based on the same adenoviral platform. So, it's an interesting piece of science to see how these two vaccines that are tweaks basically of a very similar vaccine work together. It's a relatively small trial, but it's significant in that it's the first Western vaccine that will be at least legally administered on Russian soil.To me, what's significant about this trial is that it is an effort to increase the legitimacy of the Sputnik vaccine. The Sputnik vaccine was the first one in the world to be approved by any national regulatory authority. Back in August of last year, the Russians rolled it out a little too quickly, made a lot of premature claims about its safety and efficacy. And they've been playing catch-up ever since then, trying to convince people that this is a safe and effective vaccine, which it looks like it is. But they, I think, gain an extra aura of credibility when they're working together with a respected Western vaccine like AstraZeneca.
So, you mentioned the adenovirus platform. That's what both these vaccines are based on. Neither of them use the mRNA technology. So, how might mixing these two vaccines improve efficacy and help people? 
Even though they're both based on an adenoviral platform, they're still coming at the virus in slightly different ways. They're using slightly different techniques to teach the immune system how to fight off the virus. And so, we're hoping to learn more about how that works by combining these two vaccines together.
So, you mentioned earlier that authorities in Russia have tried requiring vaccinations for public service sector workers at some restaurants and cafés, insisting on vaccine proof. What else can be done? Because this is not just a problem in Russia. The US is right behind Russia in terms of global vaccine hesitancy.
There are many different tactics, I think, that need to be put into place because the vaccine-hesitant population in the United States, in Russia, anywhere, isn't monolithic. There are many different reasons that different groups of people have for being hesitant to take the vaccines. Some of them will sound familiar to anyone following vaccine hesitancy in the United States and Western Europe and other places in the world. There is a distrust of authority. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about the vaccine.I think in Russia, a large part of it will be just standard tools that we've had in place for decades to try to overcome vaccine hesitancy, finding out who the influencers are at the community level. And here we're getting down into individual communities, churches, mosques, neighborhoods, workplaces, social media nodes, and finding out who the people are that have the capacity to influence large numbers of the folks in their networks and making sure that the right kind of scientifically grounded messages get out through those influencers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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