Friday 12/4/20

Russians skeptical of state-made Covid vaccine as mass rollout looms

Russians express a mixed bag of hopes and concerns about the country's coronavirus vaccine, the world's first to be approved by a government for public use.
The world's first COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow. Photo: Russian Direct Investment Fund.
The world's first COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow. Photo: Russian Direct Investment Fund.

When Vasily, a 47-year-old electrician in Moscow, was asked at work whether he would like to participate in a trial of Russia's state-produced coronavirus vaccine, he thought it was a good opportunity.

He said he wanted to take the vaccine to prevent contracting the potentially deadly virus. Yet there was another pressing factor behind his willingness to volunteer.

"I didn't want to lose work," he said in a telephone interview, explaining that state-imposed quarantine measures had already impacted his business.

Moscow, Russia's capital and largest city, has been at the epicentre of the country's struggle with the virus. Amid a surge of new cases in recent weeks, the vaccine, currently undergoing a trial among 40,000 volunteers, could prove a godsend.

But there are lingering concerns about the vaccine's safety, as it has been the world's first to be approved by a government for widespread public use.

The vaccine, approved in August, has courted controversy among the international scientific community amid questions about whether it has been sufficiently tested.

In a nationwide survey conducted last month by Russia's largest independent pollster, Levada Centre, more than half of the respondents, 59%, said they did not intend to take the vaccine. Another 36% said they would.

"No, I would not try out this vaccine," Natalia, a 59-year-old pensioner in the Moscow region, said. "I think it is still too raw. It was very quickly produced and quickly tested."

Like others, Natalia asked to have her surname withheld to speak candidly about the government effort.

'See how the trials go'

Another Muscovite, Stanislava, expressed similar doubts about the vaccine and said she would wait to see how the trials go before she would consider taking it.

"I'm on the fence really," said Stanislava, a 46-year-old language teacher. "So far the vaccine hasn't been properly tested. I'd wait till several people I know, including doctors, get tested and recommend it."

Russia, which has recorded the world's fifth largest coronavirus caseload, with more than 1.8 million cases, is expected to begin making the vaccine publicly available on a mass scale in either December or January, according to senior officials.

The vaccine's producer has released initial testing data for international peer review, and Hungary said this week that it would test the vaccine, the first EU state to do so.

Russia's already struggling economy was devastated earlier this year by temporary lockdowns imposed throughout much of the country in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

The economic downturn was exacerbated by a global decline in trade due to the pandemic, bringing down prices for oil and other major exports of Russia's commodity-reliant economy.

Reflecting this struggle, Russia's rouble currency has lost a quarter of its value versus the dollar this year, falling from about 61 roubles per dollar at the beginning of January to about 77 roubles per dollar currently.

Russia has positioned the vaccine, produced by the state's Moscow-based Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, as a way out of the crisis.

Two separate injections

The vaccine was named Sputnik V, in honor of the world's first man-made satellite to enter orbit. The Sputnik-1 satellite was a triumph of the Soviet Union over rival superpower the United States in the space race during the late 1950s.

Personally endorsing the vaccine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his daughter used it successfully, with the worst side effect being a slight, temporary fever.

Vasily, the volunteer, said he also experienced a slight fever after the initial shot, but that soon subsided. He said he was reassured by the state providing him a good health care plan to accompany the trial.

Another volunteer, Alexei, a 40-year-old schoolteacher in Moscow, said he experienced no significant side effects besides maybe a temporarily increased sensitivity to bright light. He said that soon subsided.

Alexei had been asked at the school where he works whether he would like to participate in the trial. He told that he wanted to participate to help others and to assuage doubts about the vaccine.

Russia has said the vaccine, administered with two separate injections three weeks apart, has shown an efficacy rate of more than 90%, a rate on par with the vaccine being developed by US pharma giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech.

"I wanted to participate to prove that it's probably not a fraud," Alexei said by phone. "I want life to return to normal."