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Meeting on developing genetic technology in Russia

May 14, 2020, Novo-Ogaryovo, Moscow Region

Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting, via videoconference, on the development of genetic technology in the Russian Federation.

Taking part in the meeting were Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, Presidential Aide Andrei Fursenko, Minister of Science and Higher Education Valery Falkov, Director of Kurchatov Institute National Research Centre Alexander Blagov, Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology Alexander Makarov, Director General of Vektor State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology Rinat Maksyutov, Director General of Biocad biotechnology company Dmitry Morozov, and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin.

* * *

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues.

Over the past we week we have dedicated our efforts primarily to countering the coronavirus epidemic and preparing urgent measures to support the people and the economy. It goes without saying that we will be consistent in these efforts moving forward. Let me reiterate, however, that as the situation changes we can once again focus on matters on our current and long-term agendas. We never lost sight of them but now that life is getting back to normal, it is essential that we deliver in a proactive and effective manner on the strategic objectives and large-scale projects with a long planning horizon and generate momentum. We will discuss one such priority today.

Let me remind you that a little over a year ago, in April 2019, we launched a programme to develop genetic technology in Russia. Today, we will review the progress made over the past 12 months. We will also discuss further steps, considering, among other things, the challenges we are facing at this moment.

To begin this discussion, I would like to note that it took us several years of consistent efforts before we could launch this complex, large-scale project. We reinforced the existing research schools and created new ones, including with input from our compatriots at leading research centres and universities. It is important that more and more young, promising scientists work on genetic research. We dedicated significant resources to developing this sphere and to life science in general, including human resources, as well as financial and institutional assets.

Genetics research is helping us to create testing systems, vaccines and medicines, including against the coronavirus. I would like to express gratitude to our geneticists for contributing to our battle against this threat.

However, it should be noted that although high-tech medicine is highly important it is not the only objective of genetic research. You know this all too well, or at least, the participants in this meeting know this better than I do. This sector as a whole focuses on people’s life, health and safety.

What is then our main objective? I believe that Russia must have an entire range of studies on the prevention and treatment of serious diseases, increasing life expectancy, improving the environment, cleaning our soil, water and air, as well as using biofuels. In other words, we are talking about a whole range of sectors, from medicine and agriculture to manufacturing and energy, where genetic technologies offer colossal opportunities.

We must use them to our advantage and in the interests of our people, developing and building up our own research and technology potential. When it comes to the scale of our objectives, the breakthrough efforts needed, and its importance for the nation, the genetics technology programme is comparable to the nuclear and space exploration projects of the 20th century. And the programme’s management system and structure must be adjusted to this high objective, so that we not only lay the groundwork but convert our achievements without delay into practical results, in other words, into technologies and products that will be competitive not only in Russia but also around the world.

This is why three world-scale genome centres are being established under the Science national project. Each of them will constitute a consortium of research institutes and universities, plus manufacturing and innovating companies, spanning from Novosibirsk to Crimea.

Rosneft has become our main technological partner. Mr Sechin, you have reported very recently that an agreement to this effect has been signed with the Government. I would like you to tell us today about the practical moves and projects Rosneft has launched within the genetics technology programme. I would like to ad that I have requested the heads of our other companies to join the mainstream development projects using their funds. Today we will be discussing the progress made in one of the key spheres – genetics – to see if any problems should be given emergency attention so that we can speed ahead.

I give the floor to Ms Golikova. Go ahead, please.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatayana Golikova: Good afternoon, Mr President, colleagues.

Mr President, as you said, the Federal Research Programme for Genetic Technologies Development until 2027 was approved in April 2019.

The Science national project, which you approved by executive order, allowed us to hold a contest to select three world-class genome centres, which are not ordinary organisations but consortiums. These three genome centres are focused on the main four spheres of the programme: biosecurity, medicine, agriculture and industry. The head organisation is the Kurchatov Institute. A special council was set up in accordance with your executive order to manage and implement this programme. It consists of representatives of the federal authorities, the Academy of Sciences and research foundations, as well as our leading geneticists and representatives of our industrial partners.

As per your executive order and the objectives of the Science national project, these centres are focused on making breakthrough achievements that will be competitive internationally. Although these genome centres have only started working, they have produced the first results. I would like to say a few words about these, bearing in mind that our colleagues from these three genome centres will speak about them in more detail.

The first is the Biosecurity Centre set up at Rospotrebnadzor’s Research Centre for Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology together with two other Rospotrebnadzor institutions. In late 2019 and early 2020, the centre compiled an electronic catalogue of clinical isolates and laboratory reference strains for the creation of innovative medicines for infectious diseases, screened over 2,000 bacterial strains and launched the compilation of a national interactive catalogue of pathogenic microorganisms and biotoxins for purposes of biological security. In addition, the centre researchers have adapted and introduced a new system for identifying Risk Groups 1 and 2 organisms. They have developed a method that allows them to rapidly diagnose diseases, including infectious diseases.

Why did I start with the Biosecurity Centre? Because these issues that are considered by the centre and other laboratories established in Russia have proven their effectiveness, and as you have already noted, that includes the new coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to the experience we have gained, including the infrastructure that we created in late 2019 – early 2020, we very quickly, as you also noted, got down to the work of creating the appropriate diagnostic tools and also started to develop vaccines against the new coronavirus.

It is already obvious that these areas are expanding the scope of the genetic programme, and here we would ask for your consent to make changes, particularly to the research plan, since we believe these studies to be relevant not only now but also for the long term.

The second is the Centre for Genetic Technologies in Medicine, based at its parent organisation, the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology. Here different work is done on the development of next generation medicines and biomedical cellular products. The first variants of oncolytic viruses were assembled here – these are modified viruses that selectively kill tumor cells.

I would like to say that this topic is also very relevant today, as not only the genetic centre is engaged in it, but it is a priority of the Healthcare national project in view of the significant funds allocated for combating cancer.

To conduct preclinical studies, the centre has developed unique strains of viruses that can destroy brain cancer cells and breast cancer cells. These results could prove to be real breakthroughs in cancer treatment. And I think that they will be of interest to the international scientific community.

The centre is also building up capacity to create highly sensitive HIV detection tools. Today, as we see, there is nothing of this kind in the world, but I think that our colleagues will address this topic in their reports.

The third centre was created at the parent organisation – the Kurchatov Institute – and is active in agriculture and industrial microbiology. In 2019, this centre created strains of bacteria that produce metabolites and enzymes used in agriculture as feed additives for farm animals, and modified bacterial genomes that produce a variety of amino acids that hold a lot of promise in agriculture.

In addition to genomics centres, the activities under the programme are being carried out, as I have already mentioned, by a number of laboratories that conduct corresponding research and work in conjunction with genomics centres. As many as 326 structural units have been created at 100 research and educational institutions located in 27 regions. They are conducting corresponding genomic research projects. Of them, 90 structural units have been set up at universities and 236 at research centres. I will not dwell on these laboratories’ performance, which is quite consequential for achieving the genomic programme goals. I will focus on our managerial achievements and unresolved problems instead.

In order to ensure competitive results, we have instructed the stakeholder ministries to work on the introduction of restrictions and terms for admitting certain types of foreign products made with the use of genetic technology to the Russian market. Primarily, this concerns agriculture. Such proposals have already been submitted by the Kurchatov Institute, and work in this area is underway.

In addition, the Government instructed the line ministries to support the genomics research centres as they register intellectual property, including abroad. We are now planning to register about 30 intellectual property items.

I would like to draw your attention to yet another issue, Mr President. This has been repeatedly discussed at both your meetings and the council sessions. I am referring to the list of equipment that we are buying for the implementation of the genetics programme. We were very careful in compiling this list and set up a working group for this purpose. We certainly wanted to use mostly domestic equipment. I would like to say a few words about that. At the same time, we wanted to make sure this equipment was fully used and did not just sit there. We still have problems with domestic equipment and domestic expendable materials. Therefore, we have planned certain steps in the council to overcome this dependence.

But first I would like to say that the demand for modern genetic equipment is fairly high now that all countries are working with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, we are assessing the risks linked with delays in equipment supplies or shortfalls in delivery. We are assessing these risks now under the Science national project. We will complete this work by July. I believe we will be able report the results to you.

As I said, we are working to reduce our dependence on foreign made equipment. I must say that following the instructions of the council, the Kurchatov Institute drew up the requirements for the development of a domestic instrument base with consideration for the proposals of all centres for genetic technology development. Importantly, this includes not only equipment but also the information systems that are needed for the genetic programme.

Today, there are about eight domestic companies that have experience in developing prototype models and the small-scale production of equipment. But we understand that this is not enough. So now, the Ministry of Industry and Trade is studying the issue of developing domestic laboratory and research equipment.

I would like to draw your attention to another issue that is also a very important part of the agenda for this programme. It is biological resource collections. Russia currently has around 80 bioresource collections. I must say that while these collections contain unique samples, they are fragmented and mainly used by scientists from their home organisations. It is important to us to consolidate scientists’ resources and the resources of the academic community so that there is demand for these collections. At the same time, they must be well protected. We are working on this. I think that there should be a common procedure for expanding, building and using such collections.

Another important aspect that we are working on is staffing, not only for the genome programme but also for genome research. In your opening remarks, you noted that people are eager to join this industry because it is modern and has become quite popular recently. However, we believe that the number of young people defending theses in genetics is still not high enough and there is still great potential there considering that 103 higher education institutions in 61 Russian regions offer genetics programmes. We instructed the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to submit proposals by November 1, 2020, on monitoring the number of students enrolling in the kinds of genetics research programmes that are important right now.

And finally, I would like to discuss another important topic. You have already mentioned it and we discussed it at length at a meeting of the Genetics Technology Council. In fact, we have made headway in this area lately. But I think that our now leading partner in the genetics programme, Rosneft, and other partners that were selected by the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture will allow us to not only conduct genetic research for scientific purposes but also to find practical applications for its results.

Once again, a wide range of potential partners have been identified in addition to our key industrial partner, Rosneft. Today we instructed the Ministry of Industry and Trade to inform these partners about available opportunities and the types of research conducted by the genomics centres – in order to motivate our industrial partners to invest their financial resources and participate in the development programme.

That is all, Mr President. I think that my colleagues will add more about their own progress. I want to thank everybody for continuing to work despite the difficulties created by the novel coronavirus.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much. But before giving the floor over to the rest of the participants in the meeting, which is exactly what I plan to do, I would like to ask Mr Sechin to share his thoughts. Go ahead, please.

Head of Rosneft Igor Sechin: Good afternoon, Mr President. Good afternoon, colleagues and Government members.

Mr President, in line with your instruction, Rosneft is acting as a technological partner of the Federal Science and Technology Programme for the Development of Genetic Technology in 2019–2027. In cooperation with the Government of the Russian Federation, as well as the country’s leading research, educational and medical institutions, Rosneft has embarked on implementing a series of priority measures.

The plan of measures that was presented to you recently was drafted and approved with the participation of Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova and Presidential Aide Andrei Fursenko. I would like to thank them for their attention and continuous involvement in our work.

The main goal of the plan is to provide personnel with interdisciplinary education that meets the highest global standards. To reach this goal, our company has created a master’s programme entitled Genomics and Human Health at the biology faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU). The programme is supervised by the chair of genetics of the MSU biology department, twice winner of the State Prize and Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences Yevgeny Rogayev. The first students of the master’s programme will begin studies in September 2020.

On April 29 of this year, Rosneft registered a non-profit organisation in the field of genetics. It is a kind of universal platform where market participants, research institutes and medical institutions can elaborate proposals on improving regulation, as well as discuss and develop approaches to introducing global best practices.

The non-profit format was chosen primarily because it broadens the range of opportunities for information exchange, helps involve Russian and foreign partners in cooperation and makes it possible to localise technology by using, whenever necessary, Rosneft’s managerial and organisational experience and its ties with business partners. The non-profit will follow all applicable laws in its work, including requirements to protect personal data.

Participation in improving the legislative and regulatory framework is one of the autonomous nonprofit organisation’s goals. This activity will help implement high quality and timely genetic diagnostics in patients with hereditary predispositions and diseases.

Today, for example, Russia’s list of medical services has no sequencing, so the results of genetic studies are technically not a medical opinion. Many modern hardware systems and reagent kits have no registration certificates. There are many other issues that can be resolved by the single industry approach to the regulatory agenda.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, Presidential Aide Andrei Fursenko and Minister of Science and Higher Education Valery Falkov have agreed to join the supervisory board.

The biotechnological campus will be among the main projects. Its priority goal is to conduct physical exams of Rosneft employees and their families. There are 350,000 employees on the company’s payroll, and obtaining primary genetic data in the interests of healthcare and research is of great importance.

The biotechnological campus pilot site will be located on the grounds of the Academicians Shemyakin and Ovchinnikov Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and will become operational this year. In the future, the biotechnological campus will be located in a new building that the company plans to build.

This biotechnological campus will combine two technological platforms made available by industry leaders, one of them Western and the other one a leading Asian company for sequencing short DNA sections and long DNA sections. Preliminary talks have been held, and our partners are interested. This approach is typical of high-performance global centres for genomic sequencing that have been created recently and boast the highest level of accuracy.

Among other things, it will help detect epigenetic DNA modifications, that is, to identify changes that have accumulated in the course of human life under the influence of an aggressive environment. This should promote research and applied work to diagnose new genetic diseases and to determine the best methods for treating a number of oncological diseases and addressing other important healthcare issues.

Rosneft will become an anchor customer of the biotechnological campus. The company will not only give its employees an opportunity to be the first to perform full-scale genomic sequencing but will also give them a venue for pediatric research for partner medical facilities. This will make it possible to screen workers with critical and dangerous jobs, as well as to elaborate new approaches to ensuring industrial security and providing social support, which may become the standard throughout most of the Russian economy.

The company has already drafted agreements on cooperation and information sharing with its colleagues from Italy, China and Great Britain. Based on your agreement with the Prime Minister of Italy, an agreement was reached with the Italian Institute for Genomic Medicine to execute a contract for developing genetic technology and for scientific and academic exchanges.

To incentivise the development of Russian genetic technology we will focus on adopting the world’s best practices and working closely with the Kurchatov Institute, MSU, academic institutes and other partners.

More broadly, I would like to note that Rosneft will act as a technological and organisational partner for the initiatives of key Russian genetics companies. We must maximise the synergy of collaborative work, supporting and supplementing areas where our participation makes the most sense.

Our cooperation with the Dmitry Rogachev National Medical Research Centre of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Immunology is a good example. Therefore, we are grateful to you, Mr President, for the opportunity to discuss development goals under your guidance, and we will work actively with everyone in this video conference. And, of course, we will cooperate with the leading institutes represented here: with Alexander Blagov, Alexander Makarov and Rinat Maxyutov.

I would like to ask you, Mr President, to support the initiatives of our company as the technological partner of the federal research programme for developing genetic technology in the next few years and to consider the possibility of exempting Rosneft investments in genetic technology from taxation. This decision would encourage greater support for investment in the Russian genetics industry.

Thank you for your attention.


Vladimir Putin: Colleagues,

I would like to round off our discussion today and to make several proposals for the development of our joint efforts in the vital sphere of genetic technology.

First of all, I would like to express gratitude to the Council for the Development of Genetic Technology and all participants of this programme.

As you know, we are now working on a long-term economic development plan. Its main objective is to ensure not only economic revival but also a new growth quality, including through deep structural changes and accelerated technological development in all spheres.

Genetic and biological technologies are developing rapidly in the world, and we must lay the groundwork for ensuring our competitiveness in these spheres for decades ahead. We must not limit ourselves to the existing programme but look much further, over the horizon.

We must begin, just as we did in all other sectors of research and technology development, by creating conditions for young entrepreneurs working in the technology sector, for our young people.

The first point I want to make – it has just been mentioned here – is that our university students and graduates, as well as young researchers, must have an opportunity to receive the best knowledge in the field of genetics and to acquire new skills. Therefore, taking into account the rapid development of genetic technology, we must create a modern system of training, just as the [Education] Minister has just said. Our education system must remain thorough, yet we must also ensure an ongoing process of renewing our educational programmes. A major step in this direction is the Genomics and Human Health master’s degree educational programme launched by Rosneft and Moscow State University, which Mr Sechin has mentioned.

Secondly, it is important, in fact, it is essentially a strategic task to inspire the younger generation to become trailblazers in genetics and join the programme for developing genetic technology now. It was already mentioned that the experience of Sirius shows that school students have many interesting, meaningful ideas. Using the best practices of Sirius, I suggest launching educational courses, individual sections on genetics for schools and extracurricular education centres and a mechanism of upgrading the skills of teachers. It has just been mentioned that teachers are not always ready for this work. It is necessary to create conditions for this.

Third. An opportunity to work on cutting edge equipment is a serious impetus for choosing science and solving complicated research tasks. Ms Golikova has also spoken about this. And we must be independent in this sensitive and meaningful area. I expect the Government to make specific proposals on creating a domestic instrument base that will make it possible to conduct genetic research at the global level. Ms Golikova, please summarise all the proposals and present them. I will certainly support them.

Fourth. The success of genetic research is largely determined by digital technology and access to the array of data. The bigger it is, the more authentic and reliable the results are. This is clear. Just as in research instrument making, we must ensure our sovereignty in this area. I suggest establishing a national base of genetic information, using our considerable expertise and best practices in bioinformatics. The head of the Kurchatov Institute spoke about this.

It is necessary to ensure on the basis of uniform standards the protection of data, its storage and transfer, and the development of software for searching, analysing and modelling information. I would like to ask the Government to organise the funding of this project. This will have to be done from federal budget funds. I would also like to draw your attention to the need to reliably protect the personal data of our people and other sensitive information.

Fifth. The scientific collections of our research institutes, some universities, and some institutions of ministries and agencies are also a foundation for new discoveries in genetics, as my colleagues have already mentioned as well. I would like to mention that academic institutions alone have over 250 such collections. Importantly, it took years and even decades to compile these collections, many of which are unique. They were created by many generations of our scientists.

The collection of seeds and plants compiled by Nikolai Vavilov back in the 1920s and kept by the National Institute of Plant Science has acquired worldwide notoriety. It would not be an exaggeration to call this collection a national treasure, and we need to preserve, systemise and analyse it. For this reason, we need to create a single network of bioresource centres so that these chains emerge in all areas of genetic research. Let me reiterate that this includes medicine, agriculture, industrial biotechnology and biosecurity.

Consolidating these data would pave the way to developing common standards for preserving and expanding collections and digitisation. Most importantly, this would enable us to build an effective mechanism, and establish clear rules on how these collections can be used by both Russian and foreign researchers. This, among other things, would lay the groundwork for undertaking international research projects in genetics and in other research disciplines here in Russia.

My sixth point is that we are open to cooperation in science and technology, as I have said. It is essential that it is in Russia that those who are prepared to achieve breakthroughs find the opportunities they need. I hope that Rosneft, represented at this meeting by its CEO, contributes to these efforts in a proactive and direct manner, alongside other companies operating in other areas. I am referring to investment in training staff, funding research and helping research teams launch much-needed and commercially viable products. I am also asking the Council for Genetic Technology to stay in close contact with researchers and Russian companies, and remove any obstacles they may face. This primarily relates to human resources, research infrastructure, funding and creating a favourable legislative framework.

There is another important matter. We all understand the power of genetic technology. For this reason, we need to build a system for supervising its use. Working together with those involved in the programme, we need to balance the freedom of research, technological development and interests of the people with the imperative to protect their interests and comply with ethical norms. I am asking you to proceed from this premise.

Colleagues, I wish you every success. Thank you very much for your work and for today’s conversation.

May 14, 2020, Novo-Ogaryovo, Moscow Region