With Russia’s coronavirus cases rising sharply, authorities are banking on the country’s Sputnik V vaccine as the answer to the crisis — and opened the vaccine to the public even before it finishes Phase III trials. In the first group, health workers and teachers can start the two-dose treatment.
But there seemed to be more vaccine skeptics than takers in the first week across Russia, struggling with the fourth-highest number of cases at more than 2.5 million.
The reasons tap into both Russia’s history of wariness about authority, and Internet-driven conspiracy theories and pandemic deniers — reflecting similar anti-vaccine rallying cries in the United States, Germany and elsewhere.
Russian authorities also did not help their cause by issuing muddled messages about whether vaccine-takers need to avoid alcohol for weeks.
“I don’t trust it,” said mechanical engineering student Lia Shulman, 21, “because they always lie. If the government tells you to do something, you should do the opposite.”
Russia rushed to register its vaccine in the summer before it was fully evaluated in trials, which may have fueled public doubts. But deep-rooted skepticism of official promises goes back to Soviet times. Many Russians simply don’t buy the rosy picture of the vaccine painted by health authorities.
“I don’t want to be vaccinated and neither do my parents,” Shulman continued. “Most of my friends are the same.”
In Moscow’s Polyclinic No. 3, beige couches with seating for 20 were vacant on one day this week. In another Moscow clinic, No. 3 Branch 2, the morning passed with no one showing up for a jab.
In efforts to sell the vaccine to the public, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and members of Russia’s Security Council have all been received it. President Vladimir Putin could not take the vaccine as a trial volunteer and would make an announcement before getting a shot, said spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The less-than-enthusiastic turnout may just signify initial wariness until more information comes from the Phase III trial. But if the snub lasts for months, it could be a major setback in Russia’s efforts to control the pandemic.
Waiting for data
Russia’s leaders see the Sputnik V vaccine as an example of Russian scientific might, keeping pace with vaccines developed in the United States, Europe and China.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which invested in the vaccine, says more than 40 countries have shown interest and there are global orders for 1.2 billion doses. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin predicted “explosive” global demand for Sputnik V on Wednesday.
Russian state media has blasted out positive propaganda about the vaccine since the summer, but many Russians remain unconvinced.
Shulman, among others, remains doubtful without clear trial data. Most information has been announced by government officials or news releases from the vaccine developers.
“I haven’t seen the [Sputnik] results, so I don’t trust them,” she said.
So far Russian scientists have published only Phase I/II results in the British medical journal Lancet. Russian officials say the Sputnik V vaccine efficacy exceeds 95 percent and it is safe.
Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford on Tuesday became the first to publish a peer-reviewed paper in the Lancet on a full vaccine trial showing 70 percent efficacy, although more trials may be needed to see how well it works for people over 55 years old.
On Dec. 4, Moscow’s deputy mayor, Anastasia Rakova, said 20,000 people had received both shots of the Sputnik V vaccine as part of Phase III trials. Of those, 272 got the virus. There were no serious side effects, she said. The randomized double-blind trial includes 40,000 volunteers aged 18 and over, a quarter of whom get the placebo. In all, 25 other potential Russian vaccines are being developed beyond the flagship Sputnik V, officials said Wednesday.
A poll by the independent Levada Center in October found 59 percent of Russians queried were unwilling to be vaccinated. Another poll in October — commissioned by Putin’s governing party, United Russia — found 73 percent of people were not planning to be vaccinated and 11 percent did not believe in the existence of the coronavirus, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
A Gallup poll last month said 58 percent of Americans would get a vaccine, up from a low of 50 percent in September.
Some welcome Sputnik
Moscow’s Polyclinic No. 68 had 1,050 vaccine doses ready on Tuesday. The Moscow City Health Department lined up four vaccination customers there for interviews at an event Tuesday for foreign and local media.
Natalia Piskaryova, 41, who works at a children’s hospital, wanted the vaccine because she had friends and relatives who died of the coronavirus.
“Mainly young people don’t trust the vaccine and do not believe in vaccination,” she said. “But there are also some middle-aged people, too. I think it’s irresponsible not to get it.”
With the turnout low, some clinics are admitting anyone who shows up. At Moscow Polyclinic No. 3 Branch 2, anyone under 60 who met health criteria was told they could have the vaccine.
Sergei Dolya, 47, who trained as a physicist, got bored with his wholesale business selling audio gear 15 years ago and sold it to become a travel blogger with his own travel TV show. He is desperate to get the vaccine so he can get back on the road.
The hitch was that he is neither a doctor or teacher.
He signed onto the official vaccination website, noticed there were plenty of vacant vaccination appointment slots and wrote an official-looking letter, declaring himself to be Sergei Dolya, employed by Sergei Dolya and stamping it with his official circular business stamp.
“I was thinking they would tell me to come back in a couple of months when it will be available for everybody,” he said.
At the vaccination center, a nurse asked him whether he was a medical worker or teacher.
“I said, ‘I give talks to schoolchildren,’ ” he said, citing his occasional school appearances.
That was enough. No one even asked for the letter.
It turned out he had to wait. Each vaccine vial is for five people and must be thawed immediately before the vaccine is injected.
“I had to wait there for an hour for another four guys to come in,” he said.
“They were saying that they were expecting a lot more people,” he added, “and that we should bring our friends in because there are a lot of vaccines and a lot of basically everything, just not enough people willing to do it.”
Some Russians also may be put off from vaccinations by the official advice to avoid alcohol for three days after each shot. But Alexander Gintsburg, the head of the state-run Gamaleya research center that developed Sputnik V, declared that “a single glass of champagne never hurt anyone.”
Several officials suggested Tuesday that Russians would have to swear off alcohol and smoking for 42 days after vaccination — a statement that was swiftly walked back.
In Polyclinic No. 5, security staff tried to prevent Washington Post reporters from visiting the vaccination section.
“Don’t let them in!” an elderly female security official hissed when a doctor agreed to allow the Post reporters in. “We know how it goes! They’ll start asking questions and then there’ll be trouble.”
Irina Ushatkina, 59, a nurse, gets mad when she sees people riding on the Metro without masks. “I glare at them, and sometimes the more responsible ones put them on.” Some of her friends do not believe the disease is serious.
“Some people say the disease was made up, and that it’s all part of some kind of international plot,” said Ushatkina. “Well, what can you say to that? I say that there are so many deaths. ‘What kind of international plotting are you talking about?’”
A Russian Telegram news group, Podyom, posted photographs of anti-vaccination leaflets circulating in Moscow that call vaccines the “rebirth of fascism” and suggest they are a kind of weapon of mass destruction.
The head doctor at Polyclinic No. 68, Natalia Kuzenkova, acknowledged people were wary. But she believes many people over 60 want the vaccine in Russia, but are not yet eligible.
“If the vaccination is successful, I hope we will be able to finish this pandemic marathon,” she said. “My goal is to explain to people that they might die if they don’t get vaccinated.”