The introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine in Russia elicits a cautious, mixed response

MOSCOW (AP) – While excitement and enthusiasm greeted the coronavirus vaccine developed in the West as it was rolled out, the Russian version received a mixed response, with reports of empty Moscow clinics offering the shot to health workers and teachers – the first members of the audience designated to receive it.

Kremlin officials and state-controlled media cited the Sputnik V vaccine as a significant achievement after it was approved on Aug. 11. But among Russians, the hope is that the shot would reverse the course of the COVID-19 crisis, mixed with caution and skepticism, out of concern at how it was rushed while it was still in the late testing phase to verify its effectiveness and safety. guarantees.

Russia has faced international criticism for approving a vaccine that has not completed advanced trials on tens of thousands of people, and experts at home and abroad warned against its wider use until the studies are completed.

Despite those warnings, authorities began offering it to certain risk groups, such as medical workers, within weeks of approval. Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya Institute that developed the vaccine, said last week that more than 150,000 Russians have received it.

One recipient was Dr. Alexander Zatsepin, an ICU specialist in Voronezh, a city 500 kilometers south of Moscow, who received the vaccine in October.

“We’ve been working with COVID-19 patients since March and every day when we get home we worry about infecting our family members. So when an opportunity came up to protect them and myself, I thought it should be seized, ”he said.

But Zatsepin said he is still taking precautions against infection because studies of the vaccine’s effectiveness aren’t over yet.

“There is no absolute confidence yet,” he said.

After Britain announced on December 2 that it had approved a vaccine developed by drug manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech, President Vladimir Putin told authorities to launch a large-scale vaccination campaign, a sign of Moscow’s eagerness to be at the forefront in the race against the pandemic.

Russia approved its vaccine after testing it on just a few dozen people, calling it “the first in the world” to get the green light. The developers called it “Sputnik V”, a reference to the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite in 1957 during the Cold War.

More is at stake than national pride. Russia has registered more than 2.7 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 49,000 deaths, and it wants to prevent another damaging blockage in its economy.

On December 2, Putin named a target of more than 2 million doses in the coming days. Despite such a limited offer for a nation of 146 million, Moscow immediately expanded who was eligible. Admissions are free to anyone in medical or educational settings, both state and private; social workers and municipal workers; retailers and service personnel; and those in the arts.

The European Medicines Agency said it has not received a request from the vaccine manufacturers to consider licensing it for use in the EU, but some data has been shared with the World Health Organization. The UN agency does not usually approve vaccines itself, but waits for regulators to act first. The Russian vaccine is reportedly being considered for use in a global effort led by WHO to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries.

Unlike in the UK, where the first shots are at the elderly, Sputnik V goes to people aged 18 to 60 who do not have a chronic disease and are not pregnant or breastfeeding.

Putin himself has not yet shot Russia. The 68-year-old Russian leader said the shots in Russia are currently recommended to people of a certain age, adding that “vaccines have not yet gotten to people like me.” “But I will, as soon as it becomes possible,” Putin told the annual press conference on Thursday.

The developers have said study data suggests the vaccine was 91% effective, a conclusion based on 78 infections among nearly 23,000 participants. Those are far fewer cases than Western drug manufacturers have collected in the latest tests before analyzing the efficacy of their candidates, and important demographic and other details of the study have not been released.

Some experts say such effectiveness metrics spark optimism, but public confidence can be an issue.

“I’m not too concerned that Sputnik V is unsafe or less effective than we need,” said Judy Twigg, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in global health. “I’m concerned if people will be willing to take it in Russia.”

A survey conducted in October by the Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent surveyor, found that 59% of Russians were not willing to take the photos, even if they were offered for free.

Denis Volkov, sociologist and deputy director of the Levada Center, says respondents cited unfinished clinical trials and said the vaccine was ‘raw’ and that they made claims that Russia was the first country to receive a vaccine while others were still in the process. theirs worked, mistrusted. .

Some medical professionals and educators interviewed by The Associated Press expressed skepticism about the vaccine because it has not been fully tested.

Dr. Yekaterina Kasyanova from the Siberian Kemerovo region said she didn’t trust it enough to get the injection and advised her mother, a teacher, not to get it either, adding, “The vaccine is several months old. … Long-term side effects are unknown, their effectiveness has not been proven. “

Dzhamilya Kryazheva, a teacher in Krasnogorsk near Moscow, echoed that feeling.

‘I don’t intend to experiment with my body. I have three children, ”she said.

For other health professionals, the choice to get vaccinated was easy.

“People die here every day. Every day we carry out corpses. What should I keep in mind? said Dr. Marina Pecherkina, an infectious disease specialist in the city of Vladivostok in the Far East. She got her shots in October because of her daily work with coronavirus patients.

Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin said about 15,000 people have been shot since the vaccinations began on Dec.5. But some media reports from the early days of the Moscow campaign showed that empty clinics and medical personnel offered the injections to everyone who entered. In some cases it was because the vaccine has to be stored at minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit), and each vial contains five doses. Once thawed, it should be administered within two hours or discarded.

The rollout outside of Moscow and the surrounding region appeared to be much slower, with Health Minister Mikhail Murashko stating that all regions began vaccinating on December 15.

Media reports suggested there may be problems scaling up the production and distribution of Sputnik V. It uses two different adenovirus vectors for the two-step regime, complicating production. In addition, the low temperature storage and transportation makes it more difficult to travel across the vast country.

There were also confused signals as to whether recipients should consume alcohol. Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said those vaccinated should not drink for three days before and after the shots.

Several medical workers in Siberia who received the vaccine later reported that they had contracted the virus, but health officials said that not enough time had passed for the antibodies to develop.

Dr. Yevgenia Alexeyeva in the Siberian city of Tomsk tested positive for the virus 12 days after her second injection. Alexeyeva said she was not surprised by the result and it did not shake her confidence in the vaccine.

“The vaccine does not guarantee that the person will not become infected. But it should protect us from developing a serious case, ”said Alexeyeva.


Vladimir Kondrashov and Anatoly Kozlov in Moscow and Tatyana Salimova in Tomsk contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s pandemic coverage on: vaccine