February 17th 2021

How does the Russian vaccine SPUTNIK V work?

MCI lecturer Reinhard Renneberg explains why the Russian vaccine 'Sputnik V' works like a Trojan horse.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced in early February that the controversial vaccine from Russia, Sputnik V, would also be used in Austria - if approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Renowned biotechnologist Reinhard Renneberg, a lecturer at the MCI in Innsbruck, explains how Sputnik V works compared to other vaccines.

How is the vaccine structured?

The Russian vaccine - scientifically named "Gam-COVID-Vac Lyo" - uses non-propagating adenoviruses. These are harmless cold viruses.  This so-called vector vaccine uses viruses as transporters ("vectors"). These are Trojan horses of genetic engineers. These vectors transport the genetic information for spike spikes (S-proteins) from the coronavirus in the laboratory as transporters into the body of the vaccinated person. 

The information for the S protein is inserted into the DNA genome of these vectors, i.e. the Trojan horses. Afterwards, human cells read them. The vaccinated person now forms antibodies against the virus spike proteins newly produced by the body itself.

The Sputnik vaccine consists of two vectors: an adenovirus vector based on adenovirus type 26 (AD 26), into which the corona spike protein gene has been integrated, and a component (AD 5) containing the same gene analogously in human adenovirus type 5. These are therefore two different transporters with the same content. There are symbolically TWO Trojan horses in the fight against the virus.

The first vaccine component starts as a so-called "primer", which triggers an initial immune response. The vaccinated patient first produces masses of virus spike proteins and then the human forms antibodies against them. Thus, the body serves as a bioreactor. The second vaccine component is used as a "booster." It is intended to further enhance the immune response.

Vaccines in comparison

Other countries also use the approach of vector vaccines. For example, the Corona vaccine candidate Ad26 from Johnson & Johnson and AZD from the University of Oxford's collaboration with Astra-Zeneca. The latter has now also been approved in the EU, but is proving less effective with regard to the B. 1.351 mutation, which was first discovered in the UK.

The special feature of Sputnik V

The vaccination strategy of Sputnik V is to give two vaccinations, each with a different adenovirus type (AD 26 is followed by AD 5). This is to prevent antibodies against the vectors from forming after the first vaccination and then weakening the effect of the second vaccination.

This also "confuses" the immune system, as there is now another Trojan horse on the way with the same DNA content. This strategy should also help the body focus on the content, rather than the transport envelope.

Indeed, antibodies generated after the first vaccination could prevent the second vectors from being taken up into the cells. This seems to be the problem with the lower efficacy of AstraZeneca's vaccine, which is currently only about 60%.

Reports from the Russian manufacturer state that the vaccine's efficiency is said to be 91.4%. However, these data came from an interim analysis of the ongoing Phase III clinical trial.

Despite initial criticism in Western countries, more and more voices are being raised, including in the Austrian government, that Sputnik-V is an effective vaccine in the fight against the coronavirus. Recent study results, as reported in ‘The Lancet’, indicate that 16 infections (0.1%) occurred in 14,964 vaccinated individuals during a trial period. Furthermore, the side effects of Sputnik V were moderate, the study states. Mostly flu-like symptoms, fatigue or pain at the injection site were reported.

The Master's program in Biotechnology at MCI focuses on the combination of molecular and industrial biotechnology with a focus on biopharmaceutical applications, which are of utmost importance in the current Corona pandemic. Numerous international experts from academia and industry are lecturers in this program.

Reinhard Renneberg

Reinhard Renneberg, born in 1951, studied chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow Stat University. After graduating, he went to the Central Institute for Molecular Biology (ZIM) in Berlin-Buch, where he received his PhD in 1978 and habilitated in 1991 in the field of biosensorics. From 1991 to 1995, he was the head of the department of Immunosensorics at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemo- and Biosensorics (ICB), Münster. In 1994, he followed the call of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) as Full Professor of Analytical Biotechnology. Renneberg is also active as a company founder. He is the author of "Bioanalytics for Beginners" as well as "Biotechnology for Beginners", for which he received the Literature Award of the Chemical Industry Fund in 2008. Since 2017, he has been teaching at the Entrepreneurial University® in Innsbruck.

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'Sputnik V' vaccine works like a Trojan horse. © Darja Suessbier/Reinhard Renneberg.

'Sputnik V' vaccine works like a Trojan horse. © Darja Suessbier/Reinhard Renneberg.

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