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Distrust of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine remains widespread at home and abroad

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Medics are seen in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients in the Moscow on October 20. [Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP]

MOSCOW -- Some call it "experimental", some don't trust the government, some even buy fake certificates -- as their country sees a record coronavirus surge, Russians are proving stubbornly resistant to the country's Sputnik V vaccine.

Russia is among the countries worst-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating wave this autumn has seen infections and deaths reach new records, with more than 1,000 fatalities per day.

But while the country has several locally produced vaccines including Sputnik V, only about a third of its population has been inoculated.

As global coronavirus fatalities topped five million on Monday (November 1), the scepticism of Russians underlines the difficulties that remain in the fight against COVID worldwide.

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A healthcare worker administers a dose of Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at a vaccination centre in Moscow on October 21. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

Sputnik V was announced with great fanfare last year by President Vladimir Putin as the first registered coronavirus vaccine and is freely available at clinics and vaccination centres across the country.

The Russian regime unleashed a massive propaganda campaign to promote Sputnik V, in tandem with campaigns smearing Western-made vaccines.

But rushing to be "first" has come at the expense of quality control, global health analysts say.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's willingness to mislead and stepped up "state-sponsored disinformation" campaigns denigrating Western-developed vaccines against COVID-19 appears to have backfired.

'I have no trust'

Meant as a showcase for Russian science that would quickly turn the page on the pandemic, Sputnik V has failed to win over the public, with polls showing fewer than half of respondents in Russia planning to get vaccinated.

For Russians like Vyacheslav, a 52-year-old businessman who declined to give his last name, the government has given them no reason to have confidence in the vaccine.

"The authorities lie to us on all sorts of subjects. Why should we believe them on vaccination?" he asked, his sports bag on his knees as he prepared for a swim at a Moscow pool.

"I have no trust," he said.

Even some of those who have contracted the coronavirus, like Svetlana Zhetlukhina, are still refusing to get jabbed.

"It's an experimental vaccine," said the 54-year-old financial analyst, adding there are not yet enough "scientific data" on Sputnik V.

"I am not a monkey," she said.

Like elsewhere, Russia has its share of diehard anti-vaxxers. But beyond those who oppose all vaccines, there are "a big number of Russians who distrust the people who made this vaccine and the Russian government", said anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova.

"They think that we cannot expect anything good from the government... and that our laboratories are incapable of producing aspirin, let alone a good vaccine," she said.

Tamara Alexeyeva, a 67-year-old retiree, said the Kremlin's claims of Sputnik's alleged superiority over Western vaccines have fed her scepticism.

"They want us to believe that we have the best scientists in the world, like the USSR," she said, walking briskly towards a Metro station.

"But me, I will never accept this so-called vaccine."

Sputnik V has been administered to millions of recipients, and both its effectiveness and safety have been confirmed by the respected British medical journal The Lancet.

But it has not yet won approval from the World Health Organisation or the European Medicines Agency -- another fact that is feeding concern among Russians.

"It's suspicious," said Vyacheslav, his eyebrows furrowing.

'Win back confidence'

The Kremlin has been pinning its hopes on vaccines and has shied away from the kind of severe lockdowns imposed in many countries.

But with current policies failing to reduce cases, authorities have imposed a nationwide non-working week from October 30 to November 7.

Mandatory jabs have also been required for some service workers, and there are increasing moves towards requiring vaccination certificates for public venues.

But sceptical Russians are finding ways around that too, with a thriving market in fake passes.

Alexander, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, said he preferred to spend 5,500 RUB ($80) to buy a false certificate instead of obtaining a free vaccine and knows "a lot of people" who have done the same.

The Kremlin has put out increasingly desperate calls for Russians to get vaccinated, with Putin in mid-October asking them to "please, show responsibility".

Authorities face an uphill battle.

According to sociologist Stepan Goncharov of independent pollster Levada, surveys show the number of respondents opposed to being vaccinated -- "between 50 and 55%" -- has been steady for months.

The Kremlin "needs to win back people's confidence" if it wants to prevail in the vaccination battle, he said, by putting in place a "more coherent policy" after months of vacillating between warnings and inaction.

With hospitalisations on the rise and Russia's health system stretched, doctors say the best ambassadors for vaccination may be those who are treated for serious cases of COVID-19.

"Those who survive become our allies," said Yevgeny Ryabov, a doctor at Moscow's top emergency hospital, the Sklifosovsky Institute.

"When they get out of the hospital, they tell their loved ones to get vaccinated."

Central Asian concerns

Scepticism of the Kremlin regime and of Russian-made vaccines has also extended beyond its borders into Central Asia.

Central Asian migrants in Russia have been forced to be vaccinated with Sputnik Light, an unproven vaccine known to be less effective than Sputnik V, and have to pay triple the suggested cost for it.

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

Although employers are supposed to bear the cost of the vaccine, often they do not.

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

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

In Kazakhstan, many doctors and Healthcare Ministry officials are hoping to reduce dependence on the Sputnik V vaccine.

The Russian coronavirus vaccine is "contraindicated for people from the COVID-19 infection risk group", Kazakh Vice Minister of Healthcare Marat Shoranov said in an online briefing in September 2020.

Sputnik V's "efficacy is shrouded in a suspicious secrecy", said Aigerim Jakasheva, a primary care doctor in Almaty.

"Russia is hiding the details about how exactly it tested Sputnik V," she said last December. "It's not sharing the clinical protocol. It has a small sample size and not enough testing volunteers -- we have only press releases put out by the organisation funding the project."

"It's not entirely clear just how Russia assessed the efficacy of its vaccine," she added.

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