MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian scientists plan to start clinical trials within two weeks on a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus, the health minister was quoted as saying on Saturday as authorities approved the country’s first anti-COVID-19 drug.

Russia has the world’s third-highest toll of coronavirus infections after the United States and Brazil, and Kremlin officials have said the nation’s researchers are working on almost 50 different vaccine projects.

“The tests are under way and we plan to start clinical trials in the next two weeks,” Health Minister Mikhail Murashko was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency. He said volunteers had been selected to take part in the trials.

Drugmakers worldwide are rushing to develop treatments and vaccines for the virus that has caused 364,000 deaths globally.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund said the Health Ministry had approved Avifavir for the treatment of COVID-19.

It was developed on the basis of a drug known generically as favipiravir.

RDIF said Avifavir had proved highly effective in treating patients with coronavirus in the first phase of its clinical trials. The final stage of clinical trials is under way, with the participation of 330 patients.

There are currently about 10 coronavirus vaccines being tested in humans and experts have predicted that a safe and effective vaccine could take 12 to 18 months from the start of development.

One of the Russian vaccine projects is being undertaken by the state-run Vektor Institute in Siberia, whose director general, Rinat Maksyutov, said on Saturday he hoped to complete clinical trials in mid-September.

Maksyutov said vaccine trials on animals had been successful.

Russia on Saturday reported 181 deaths from the coronavirus in the last 24 hours – down from the record 232 deaths the previous day – bringing the nationwide death toll to 4,555.

Officials said 8,952 new infections had been confirmed, bringing the national tally to 396,575 cases.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Helen Popper)

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