On October 19, The Moscow Times reported that Russia had set a new record for COVID-19 fatalities: daily death counts of more than 1,000. Severely sick patients began overwhelming many hospitals. And President Vladimir Putin ordered Russians to take a week off work to stave off the surge in cases nationwide.
Ironically, Russia was the first country to announce a COVID-19 vaccine, known as Sputnik V, in August 2020. But one year after the vaccine’s rollout, which had Putin’s backing, only 19 percent of the population had been fully vaccinated with the two required doses. The figure now stands at only about 35 percent.
Research shows a high rate of vaccine hesitancy in Russia. Although the motives vary greatly, one factor is mistrust in the government.
Putin may be partly to blame. He touted Sputnik V at the release as being safe and effective even though large-scale clinical trials hadn't begun. His claims met skepticism from some Russian medical authorities who urged Russia’s Ministry of Health to revoke Sputnik V’s registration until after the large trials could be completed.
Responding to the news of record daily deaths and low vaccination rates, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the persistence of vaccine hesitancy. But he denied that it was tied to Sputnik V or any specific vaccine.
“This vaccinophobia, which some citizens have, is not related to vaccine brands at all,” he said.
Peskov’s statement is misleading.
In addition to the early Russian skepticism, Sputnik V has yet to gain full international acceptance despite evidence suggesting it is safe and effective.
The World Health Organization recently suspended the approval process for Sputnik V, citing a lack of data. The United States and European Union have not yet approved Sputnik V for use.
Independent polling among Russians has shown great resistance to vaccination regardless of brand. In March, Reuters reported more than 60 percent of Russians in a Levada Center survey said they didn’t want Sputnik V. Most cited side effects as the reason. About 64 percent said they thought the coronavirus was made as a bioweapon.
By comparison, the Levada Center found that 69 percent of Russian doctors and medical specialists trusted Sputnik V as safe and effective.
There are a few other vaccinophobia factors to consider.
First, Russians have not had much choice. Authorities had earlier stopped foreign vaccine imports. A campaign in state-sponsored media also cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of foreign vaccines, particularly those from the U.S. Pfizer-BioNTech collaboration and the U.K.’s AstraZeneca.
There is evidence that Russians who can afford to do so are traveling outside to acquire Western vaccines. The Associated Press reported that Russians have been making trips to Serbia, a non-European Union country, to get the Pfizer-BioNTech shots and others.
Russian travel agencies arranged vaccine package tours. Some Russians interviewed said they wanted a foreign vaccine to be able to travel more widely.
About 50 countries are now open to travelers inoculated with approved vaccines, though not all approved vaccines are accepted in some countries. That and other inconsistent policies have created confusion for travelers, The New York Times reported.
Writing in July for Foreign Policy, Alexey Kovalev, investigative editor at the independent Russian publication Meduza, said the government simply blew its COVID-19 response.
“Despite having access to the brain power and resources of one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, Russian authorities have repeatedly squandered almost every chance to beat the pandemic,” Kovalev said.
“Their massive, bloated propaganda apparatus failed to do the one job it was designed for: Get the message out. Instead, the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of trust between the Russian government and citizens.”