MOSCOW (AP) – While at the Park House shopping center in northern Moscow, Vladimir Makarov saw that he was offering the coronavirus vaccine to customers and asked how long it would take.
“It turned out to be simple here – 10 minutes,” he said of his experience last month.
But Makarov, like many Muscovites, still decided to postpone receiving the shot of Sputnik V.
Last year, Russia boasted that it was the first in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine, but now it is lagging behind in immunizing its population. This has called into question whether the authorities will achieve their ambitious goal of vaccinating more than 30 million of the country̵
The reluctance of the vaccine comes as photos in the capital are easily accessible to anyone aged 18 and over in more than 200 public and private clinics, shopping malls, food courts, hospitals – even a theater.
By mid-April, more than 1 million of Moscow’s 12.7 million residents, or about 8%, had received at least one shot, although the campaign began in December.
This percentage is similar for Russia as a whole. By April 27, only 12.1 million people had received at least one shot and only 7.7 million, or 5%, had been fully vaccinated. This puts Russia far behind the United States, where 43% have received at least one shot, and the European Union, with nearly 27%.
Data analyst Alexander Dragan, who tracks vaccinations across Russia, said last week that the country provides photos of 200,000 to 205,000 people a day. To achieve the goal of mid-June, it must be almost twice that.
“We need to start vaccinating 370,000 people a day, for example from tomorrow,” Dragan told the Associated Press.
To stimulate demand, Moscow authorities have begun offering coupons worth 1,000 rubles ($ 13) to those over 60 who are vaccinated – not a small amount for those who receive monthly pensions of about 20,000 rubles ($ 260).
However, this did not generate much enthusiasm. Some senior Muscovites told the AP that it was difficult to register online for parties or find grocery stores that accept them.
Other regions also offer incentives. Authorities in Chukotka, across the Bering Strait from Alaska, promised the adults 2,000 rubles for vaccination, while the neighboring Magadan region offered 1,000 rubles. Theater in St. Petersburg offers discounted tickets for those who present a vaccination certificate.
Vaccination levels lagging behind in Russia depend on several factors, including supply. Russian drug manufacturers are slowly increasing mass production, and in March there was a shortage in many regions.
So far, only 28 million dual-dose kits have been produced from all three vaccines available in Russia, with Sputnik V representing most of them, and only 17.4 million have been released after quality control.
The waiting lists for the shot remain long in places. In the Sverdlovsk region, Russia’s fifth most populous region, 178,000 people were on the waiting list by mid-April, Deputy Health Minister Ekaterina Yutyaeva told the AP.
On April 28, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were enough vaccines in Russia, adding that demand was the determining factor in the country’s vaccination rate.
Another factor in the Russians’ reluctance to Sputnik V is the fact that it was introduced even when large-scale tests were still ongoing to ensure its safety and efficacy. But a study published in February in the British medical journal The Lancet said the vaccine appeared safe and highly effective against COVID-19, according to a study involving about 20,000 people in Russia.
A February survey by Russia’s largest independent sociologist, the Levada Center, found that only 30% of respondents were ready to receive Sputnik V, one of three vaccines produced in the country. The survey has an error of 3.4 percentage points.
Dragan, a data analyst, says one possible explanation for the reluctance is the authorities’ account that they tamed the outbreak, even if that assessment may be premature.
With most virus restrictions lifted and government officials praising the Kremlin’s pandemic response, few are motivated to fire, he said, quoting an attitude: “If the outbreak is over, why get vaccinated?
Vasily Vlasov, a public health expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, echoed Dragan’s mood and also cited conflicting signals from officials and the media.
“The Russians in 2020 were bombarded with conflicting reports – first about (the coronavirus) that it is not dangerous and just a cold, and then that it is a deadly infection,” he told the AP. “Then they were forbidden to leave their homes.”
Another story, he said, is that foreign vaccines are dangerous, but those made in Russia are not. State television reported side effects related to Western vaccines, celebrating the international success of Sputnik V.
The proper media campaign to promote vaccinations began on state television only at the end of March, observers and news reports said. The videos on Channel 1’s national network featured celebrities and other public figures who shared their experiences but did not show them injections. President Vladimir Putin said he received the shot at about the same time, but not in front of a camera.
“Fertile ground for conspiracy theorists,” said Dragan, who also works in marketing.
Rumors of the alleged dangers of the vaccines actually intensified on social media in December, when Russia began controlling the shootings, and have continued to do so ever since, said social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova.
The rumors, combined with other factors – pseudo-science on Russian television, problems with the distribution of vaccines and the uneven distribution of the promotional campaign – are hampering the pursuit of immunization, Arkhipova told the AP.
Vlasov, meanwhile, noted that the outbreak in Russia is far from over and there are even signs that it is growing.
“Approximately the same number of people are infected every day in Russia now, as last May, at the peak of the outbreak,” he said, adding that twice as many people die every day as a year ago.
Government statistics say infections remain at about 8,000-9,000 a day nationwide, with 300-400 deaths reported daily. But new cases have steadily increased in Moscow over the past month, exceeding 3,000 last week for the first time since January.
The infection rate is rising in seven regions, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said on April 23rd without identifying them. She blamed “insufficient vaccination rates” in some places.
Still, the abundance of vaccines in Moscow attracts foreigners who cannot be shot at home. A group of Germans received their first blow at their hotel last month.
Uwe Keim, a 46-year-old software developer from Stuttgart, told the AP he believed “there are more vaccines here in Russia than are required of people here.”
Kostya Manenkov and Anatoly Kozlov in Moscow and Yulia Alekseeva in Ekaterinburg.
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