A new Russian Covid-19 vaccine looks promising, but did they fabricate some of their data?

Last week, a team of Russian scientists published the results of two phase 1/2 vaccine trials for a new Covid-19 vaccine developed in Russia. The study appeared in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals.

This vaccine has already received tremendous attention after Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced they would start administering it widely, before any phase 3 trials were under way. As I wrote last month, it’s not a good idea to skip these Phase 3 trials.

Nevertheless, the results from the early stage trials of both vaccines look quite good. Although the trials were small, with just 76 subjects, 100% of the subjects had a strong antibody response, and none of them had anything more than mild reactions to the vaccine. This suggests that both vaccines might be effective, although it’s too soon (after just 76 people) that it will be safe on a large scale.

There’s another problem, though.

Within 3 days of the paper’s publication, Enrico Bucci from Temple University described a series of apparent duplications in the figures presented in the Russian paper. He published his findings on his website as a “note of concern” that dozens of other scientists have signed.

I’ve read the paper and looked at all the figures, and it’s clear that something is wrong with the data.

Let’s look at one example to see what is going on. Here’s a small part of Figure 2A from the paper:

Each little column of dots shows a distinct group of 9 subjects, where the height of a dot indicates the level of antibodies found in that subjects. Notice that the 9 subjects in the red box (boxes added for emphasis) on the left have an identical pattern to those in the box on the right. These are completely independent subjects, and such a pattern is exceedingly unlikely.

It’s possible that this happened by chance, but then the problem is that this isn’t the only apparently duplication. Prof. Bucci identified at least 13 instances where sets of results are identical or near-identical between two different time points or two different sets of subjects. The other duplications look a lot like the one shown here.

The simplest explanation is that the data for some of the experiments were simply copied over from other experiments. As reported in The Moscow Times, the lead author of the study, Denis Lugonov, said there were no errors in the data. Because the authors of the Russian study didn’t provide their raw data, and The Lancet didn’t require it, other scientists can’t really check.

What are we to make of this? The details of the study are clearly explained, and the Russian vaccines use a design (an adenovirus modified to contain the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein) that is similar to other vaccines that so far seem safe and effective. Thus it’s quite possible that this vaccine will work–and it will be good for the world if it does. But the questionable data raise questions about whether the scientists behind this phase 1/2 trial have really done all of the experiments that they describe. The study concludes by noting that a phase 3 clinical trial with 40,000 participants is planned. Let’s hope that one yields positive–and genuine–results.

[Hat tip to Retraction Watch for drawing my attention to this study.]