When factory worker Viktoria Marchenko fell ill with Covid-19 this month, the surge in cases in her hometown of Gatchina outside St Petersburg meant she had to fight for days to get adequate medical attention.
But as Ms Marchenko recuperates at home, the experience has only hardened her resolve not to get vaccinated.
“Honestly, I don’t believe in Russian medicine and all these vaccines, because I don’t trust our government to make things better,” Ms Marchenko said.
Russia rolled out its mass vaccination programme with Sputnik V, manufactured by the state-run Gamaleya Institute, last weekend in an effort to help stem the country’s daily tide of more than 26,000 coronavirus infections.
The Kremlin is touting the vaccine as an international breakthrough. Its manufacturers say they have fielded demand to produce doses for 1.2bn people internationally next year.
Though the vaccine has yet to complete phase 3 trials, president Vladimir Putin said Sputnik V was “quite effective” when he approved it for use in August.
The Gamaleya Institute said interim data from the trials showed the vaccine’s efficacy was 92 per cent — on a par with western competitors from Moderna, Oxford university and AstraZeneca, and Pfizer/BioNTech, which are also still undergoing phase 3 trials. On Friday, AstraZeneca said it would partner with the Gamaleya Institute to test whether their respective jabs could be combined.
At a clinic in the Butovo district on the outskirts of Moscow, Natalia Isakova, a hospital receptionist, said she had decided to get the vaccine out of a sense of responsibility. “Russia has lots of good scientists who have done vaccines, so why not? If there were any problems with it they wouldn’t release it.”
Vladimir Leksin, a municipal services worker, said after receiving the first of two shots that he thought word of mouth would convince more people to get vaccinated. “I know people who don’t believe in the vaccine. But they haven’t had it,” he said. “Everyone who did it feels better.”
The Kremlin’s challenge, however, is convincing 70 per cent of Russia’s 143m population — who Sputnik V’s manufacturers say must be inoculated to stop the virus spreading — that the vaccine is safe and effective.
A deep-rooted suspicion of authority and the proliferation of anti-vaccine content online mean 61 per cent of Russians do not trust official data on coronavirus, while 59 per cent do not plan to get the vaccine, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center in November.
By comparison, only 26 per cent of Americans in an AP poll this week said they would not get vaccinated.
Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is funding Sputnik V, told the Financial Times that a more recent survey to be published next week showed 42 per cent of Russians were willing to take the vaccine.
Gamaleya Institute director Alexander Gintsburg said on Thursday that Russia had already vaccinated 150,000 people, which he claimed was the most of any country worldwide.
A few days into Moscow’s vaccination programme, mayor Sergei Sobyanin said 6,000 people had received the first dose of the two-shot jab — amounting to about 17 per day at the 70 clinics offering the vaccine — while a further 14,000 had signed up.
Mr Dmitriev said that Russia had a “backlog of millions of people” who wanted to get vaccinated, many from large state-owned enterprises who wanted to buy doses for their employees en masse.
In Russia, doctors and teachers are eligible to receive the jab first, rather than the elderly. But several people said they managed to get vaccinated despite not being part of the prioritised groups.
“I’m just a regular mom on maternity leave. I signed up an hour before the vaccine, went to the clinic, and they did everything,” Muscovite Daria Sakharova wrote in a Telegram group chat where hundreds of people who received the vaccine compare symptoms and results. “I’m not a doctor or a teacher and I’m not chronically ill — I just sit at home with my kid.”
The vaccine has been particularly popular among members of Russia’s political and business elite, some of whom volunteered for early access to it and publicly urged people to sign up.
Though Mr Putin has not been vaccinated himself, enough senior figures in the elite have already had the jab that their underlings have rushed to join them in the hope of retaining personal access, according to three senior businessmen who received the vaccine this year.
One person with close ties to the security services said so many officials had been vaccinated that they would begin meetings by showing off how many Covid-19 antibodies their bosses had.
“A lot of the elite would rather die of the vaccine than of the virus. It’s probably not going to kill you,” said a senior state banker. “When the big people in big offices do it, then lots of others follow suit.”
Sputnik V’s backers have fumed at the criticism from some western experts who say the Gamaleya Institute has not released enough trial data.
“The whole discussion has been that Russia’s a mouldy backwater where there’s no way you can produce a vaccine,” said Dmitry Kulish, a professor at private science university Skoltech.
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On Friday, Russia’s defence ministry, which has also begun vaccinating the armed forces, claimed to have uncovered a foreign “information sabotage” plot to discredit the vaccine.
The vaccine has also come under criticism from three Russian scientists who wrote an open letter in November criticising the Gamaleya Institute for not sharing enough data and starting vaccination before clinical trials are concluded.
The scientists said the race to keep up with western manufacturers made Sputnik V a “hostage” to geopolitics and warned that it would harm “the safe testing of the vaccine”.
Mr Dmitriev said he believed “some people are afraid of the power of our vaccine” and were working to “paint it in dark colours”. He added: “But obviously it doesn’t work, because we have efficiency at over 90 per cent.”
Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini in Rome
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