Even Doctors Won’t Take Putin’s Vaccine as COVID-19 Rages in Russia
As Russia grapples with another pandemic wave, plummeting public trust in the Kremlin means people are skipping the Putin-approved COVID-19 jab—even doctors on the front lines.
MOSCOW—After the Kremlin had all but declared victory against the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia—many across the country now believe they’re back to square one.
This month, a raging new wave hit Russia’s big cities. Hospitals quickly turned into “red zones” for infected patients, scientists say they are expecting more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases a day by the end of June, and all the while, Russian people remain hesitant to take the government at its word.
The Kremlin claimed to be the first country in the world to register a coronavirus vaccine last summer. Throughout the fall and winter, bars, restaurants and theaters remained open, with officials saying they had infection rates under control.
President Vladimir Putin claimed his government’s handling of the pandemic was better than that of the U.S. and the European Union: “It turns out we are better at mobilizing,” he said in February.
And now, just a few months later, the country appears to be falling into yet another COVID-19 spiral. Moscow’s intensive care units are crowded with COVID-19 patients, and deaths are mounting. On Tuesday, the Russian capital registered a tragic new daily record of 86 people dead, and almost 700 people on ventilation. The director of Sklifosovsky Research Institute, Sergey Petrikov, has described the new wave as more aggressive, and “much more severe for young people, too.”
The clearest explanation for this new wave is a failing vaccination campaign, rooted in public distrust in the government’s stamp of approval. Only 10 percent of the population have received both shots—the rest appear to be in no hurry to get their jabs. Some people waited until Putin got vaccinated in late March, others hesitated even after government vaccine researchers said that Sputnik was more than 90 percent effective.
Even Russian doctors are undermining scientists by refusing to take Russian-made vaccines. One third of Russian doctors—36 percent—have doubts about the effectiveness of the Russian vaccine, and almost half of them say they want to wait for more evidence of the vaccine’s effectiveness, according to a social study by Spravochnik Vracha (Doctor’s Manual) last month. Even blessings from a well-regarded medical magazine, The Lancet, did not convince skeptical Russian doctors.
Instead of addressing the doubts of the people, authorities are blaming the new wave on what they describe as a “declining natural immunity” from people who came down with COVID-19 last year. When infection counts jumped by more than 40 percent in a single week this month, the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, said it was the result of “a sharp decrease” in collective immunity. “We should have a different approach to calculating public immunity now… one needs a much stronger immunity to resist it,” he declared on Friday.
To ordinary people, that explanation is a hard sell.
“First they said we’d beat the virus, then that the immunity would last for a couple years. Now they say the story is not over, that we’d have to get vaccinated again after six months,” a beautician at a manicure salon, Diana, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to get a toxic vaccine injected in me every six months, so I am glad I have not got Sputnik. I will wait and see what else they have to tell us.”
But ignorance can kill. A research associate at Moscow Institute of Molecular Biology, Alexander Ivanov, recounted his experience with one such doubtful patient, a 40-year-old woman named Daria who he had watched die in an intensive care unit.
“She was one of COVID-19 dissidents, she wasted more than 10 days going around some fortune tellers instead of receiving proper treatment. And now 100 percent of her lungs have been damaged, her temperature is falling,” Ivanov told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday. “Both Daria and 15 members of her family in Tula doubted state reports on vaccination.”
There are many cases similar to Daria’s, Ivanov said, of people feeling skeptical about official coverage of the pandemic.
“It is even more frustrating to hear some absolutely ignorant comments by professional doctors that fuel myths about COVID-19 vaccine–they should be sweeping streets, and not treating people.”
In an effort to persuade citizens to take the vaccine, public officials, journalists, and celebrities all over Russia have been promoting the jab as safe and effective in recent months. On Tuesday, the head of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights in the Far East, Tatyana Detkovskaya, broke down the most popular myths about Sputnik for a local news outlet: No, the vaccine does not harm fertility—and no, it does not alter human DNA, she said.
Putin admitted last month that the pace of the vaccination process was slowing. As such, the Kremlin has resorted to a familiar fix: Pressure.
Russian Minister of Labor and Social Protection, Anton Kotyakov, said on Sunday that once regional authorities make a decision about mandatory vaccination, employers should suspend workers who have not been vaccinated without paying them salaries. Moscow has also demanded that a majority of city employees be fully vaccinated, including more than 100,000 taxi drivers.
Until recently, I had rarely met a cab driver who had been vaccinated.
“They inject something in hospitals that kills people,” Aleksey Sobolev, a Yandex taxi driver, told The Daily Beast. “Doctors told me that the vaccine is bad for us.”