Caravanserai
Human Rights

Sputnik Light seen as profit-making scheme exploiting 'guinea pig' migrants

By Kanat Altynbayev

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A healthcare worker holds a vial with the one-dose Russian Sputnik Light COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Moscow on July 2. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

ALMATY -- Central Asian migrants in Russia say they are the victims of a profit-making scheme as they are forced to pay multiple times the suggested price for the one-dose Sputnik Light vaccine.

On top of having to pay more for the vaccine, while Russian citizens get their vaccines for free, the migrants are being offered only the less effective version of the Sputnik V vaccine, touted by the Russian government as one of the world's most effective despite clear evidence to the contrary.

On June 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the government to arrange for the vaccination of foreigners -- ostensibly to protect migrant workers from COVID-19.

Migrant workers' employers are supposed to pay 1,300 RUB ($17.50) for each migrant's vaccination, according to a statement by the Moscow mayor's office.

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Tajik migrants work on a road project in Moscow on July 14. [Kanat Altynbayev/Caravanserai]

That price is more than triple the 343 RUB ($4.63) maximum fee for Sputnik Light announced in May by Russia's Federal Antimonopoly Service.

Meanwhile, the Russian government is paying manufacturers of Sputnik V less than 900 RUB ($12.10) for each Russian citizen's full vaccination.

Compounding the insult, the Sputnik Light vaccine is less effective than Sputnik V.

The single-dose Sputnik Light was developed by the Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology to maintain the immunity of patients who have already recovered from COVID-19 -- in other words, not for the wider population and specifically not for those who have not contracted the virus.

Both bureaucrats and analysts have confirmed this.

"The Sputnik Light vaccine is not an alternative to Sputnik V since it was developed for other tasks," Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko told journalists in May.

Sputnik Light, registered in Russia on May 6, is the first dose of Sputnik V.

It does not provide full protection to recipients who have not previously contracted the coronavirus and have not been vaccinated, according to Alexander Chepurnov, a virologist and director of the highly infectious diseases lab at the Federal Research Centre of Fundamental and Translational Medicine in Novosibirsk.

"Twenty-one days after vaccination, the quantity of antibodies against the adenovirus will begin to fall drastically," Chepurnov said in an interview on July 9 with URA.RU.

"While the delta variant is spreading, that's significant," he added, referring to a more contagious strain of the coronavirus.

Since the campaign began, 68,000 foreigners have received the Sputnik Light vaccine in Moscow, Interfax reported on July 11, citing the Moscow emergency response centre for control and monitoring of coronavirus.

Russian indifference

"Not only is the weak vaccine for us much more expensive, but on top of that we're required to pay for it," said Bakhrom Islamov, an Uzbek waiter in a Moscow café.

Although employers are supposed to bear the cost of the vaccine, his employer will deduct the cost from his pay, said Islamov.

"Our manager told me that after I'm vaccinated, the cost will be deducted from my wages, which are insufficient as it is," he said.

"I can't refuse to get vaccinated -- I'll get fired," he said.

Meanwhile, the rollout of the vaccination campaign already has proven controversial in other ways.

Vaccines for migrants in all of Russia are being provided at only two locations --- the migration centre in the village of Sakharovo in the Moscow region, and in the Sadovod market in Moscow.

A total of five doctors staff the two locations.

Even before the vaccination campaign, the Sakharovo centre was inundated with visitors in May and June as thousands of migrants stood in endless, COVID-friendly lines to register to remain in Russia or to apply for job placement permits.

The way in which the government organised the vaccination drive shows just how indifferent it is to the health and lives of foreign workers, said Islamov.

Migrants say all this makes them feel like guinea pigs.

"Evidently, [Russian authorities] are placing migrants in a lower-ranking group since they're testing vaccines and the mechanisms of vaccination campaigns on them before scaling up the process," said Murat Ashimov, a lawyer in Bishkek.

"If human rights groups in Russia felt free [to act], they would most certainly be asking questions about the social and class biases of the Russian vaccination campaign," he said.

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