Russia’s Vaccine Is Embraced Abroad, Avoided at Home

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Russia’s Vaccine Is Embraced Abroad, Avoided at Home

MOSCOW—Last summer, Russia was the first nation to announce its approval of a Covid-19 vaccine. Dozens of countries from Mexico to Iran have since ordered millions of doses of the shot, known as Sputnik V.

But at home, Russia’s vaccination campaign has sputtered in the midst of one of the world’s highest levels of vaccine hesitancy. While the vaccine is free and widely available, only 3.5% of Russians have received at least one shot, compared with 17.1% in the U.S. and 32.1% in the U.K., according to Our World in Data, a project based at Oxford University that tracks the global vaccine rollout. Recent surveys show that less than a third of Russians are willing to get the Sputnik V vaccine.

Behind the skepticism are lingering doubts about Sputnik V’s rapid development and an ingrained distrust of authorities stemming from the country’s Soviet past. Polls, for instance, show that many Russians believe that the coronavirus is a man-made biological weapon. At the same time, surveys indicate a strong current of Covid-19 disbelief in Russia.

Vaccine Sentiment

Wide rollouts are essential to reach herd immunity against Covid-19, health experts say.

Respondents that would agree to take a vaccine, if available

Strongly agree

Somewhat agree

South Korea

South Africa*

While coronavirus infections in Russia have been falling, the slow acceptance of the vaccine leaves the country vulnerable to a new surge. Russia has had more than four million infections, the fourth-highest in the world. Vaccine hesitancy risks undermining the government’s goal of inoculating around 60% of the population by summer.

“We were on par with everybody else in developing the vaccine, but we’re now behind in administering it,” said Anton Gopka, dean of faculty of technological management and innovations at St. Petersburg’s ITMO University and general partner of healthcare investment firm ATEM Capital. “In the end, the big risk is that it will prolong the pandemic here.”

That isn’t a concern for Vadim Ivanov, a 55-year-old driver for St. Petersburg’s city maintenance department. He doesn’t trust the government or the healthcare system and believes the Covid-19 threat is overblown.

“I’m not getting a vaccine because I don’t believe in the coronavirus; it’s all about deception,” said Mr. Ivanov, who doesn’t usually wear a mask and rarely practices social distancing. “People say it’s all nonsense, it’s all far-fetched, it’s all invented.”

To speed the rollout, Russian authorities scrapped priority vaccination groups and opened the inoculation campaign to everyone in January. Vaccination centers have been set up in food courts, opera houses and shopping malls, with some outlets offering free ice cream for each shot.

“There is no shortage of vaccines,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, recently told reporters. “But one cannot say that there is a rush” to get a shot, he said. Officials expect demand for Sputnik V to increase as more Russians learn about the advantages of the vaccine. In addition to Sputnik V, Russia has approved two other Covid-19 vaccines.

President Vladimir Putin will get a vaccine in the late summer or early autumn, the Kremlin has said.

Photo: Alexey Nikolsky/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who regularly praises the vaccine on national television and extols it in his conversations with foreign leaders, has yet to be vaccinated himself. The Kremlin has said Mr. Putin plans to get a vaccine during the late summer or early autumn after consulting with doctors.

“The government needs to do a better job at communicating the benefits of the vaccine,” Mr. Gopka said. “And of course people would get more comfortable if the head of state took it.”

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The challenges of rolling the shot out across Russia’s vast land mass in the midst of harsh winter conditions have also hampered the campaign. On Thursday, Mr. Putin said nine of Russia’s 85 regions hadn’t begun vaccinating.

The Sputnik V shot has faced challenges from the start. It was approved in August, just a few months after development started and before large-scale clinical trials were conducted. Then, as Russia began to roll it out in December, production problems meant that the country could deliver only a fraction of the doses that officials had initially promised.

A peer-reviewed study, published last month in the Lancet, a British medical journal, showed that the vaccine was 91.6% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 and had no serious side effects. Russian drug manufacturers, meanwhile, have recently stepped up production. Indeed, some analysts expect a glut of vaccines if demand doesn’t pick up.

Abroad, Russia has conducted a public-relations campaign, including posting video updates in English and maintaining a Twitter account for Sputnik V. According to U.S. officials, Russian intelligence agencies have mounted a campaign to undermine confidence in Pfizer Inc.’s and other Western vaccines, using online publications that in recent months have questioned the vaccines’ development and safety. The Kremlin denies these allegations.

More than 40 other countries have authorized Sputnik V for emergency use. European Union members Slovakia and Hungary have approved Sputnik V and on Thursday the bloc’s medicines regulator began a formal assessment that could lead to an authorization of the shot.

But many Russians remain unconvinced.

Country Doses given Share of population fully vaccinated Share of population given at least one dose

Source: Our World in Data

A survey released by the independent pollster Levada Center this week showed that only 30% of Russians are willing to get a Sputnik V shot, down from 38% in December, with many citing concern over possible side effects and doubts about the clinical trials.

“The vaccine has not been fully tested yet and [the mass vaccination campaign] is in fact a trial being carried out en masse on the residents of Russia without their knowledge,” said Tatyana Andreyeva, a 39-year-old human-resources director from Kaliningrad. She said she won’t get inoculated.

Ms. Andreyeva’s 10-year-old son got sick with Covid-19 last October but recovered quickly without infecting the rest of the family. “I do not consider Covid to be a serious and highly contagious disease,” she said.

To counter skepticism over its Covid-19 vaccine, Russia has built a public-relations effort at home and abroad. WSJ’s Georgi Kantchev explains why the success of Sputnik V is so important for the Kremlin. Photo: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

Globally, Russians rank among the biggest vaccine skeptics. An Ipsos survey released in February showed that 42% of Russians would get a vaccine, compared with 71% in the U.S. and 57% in France.

Besides doubts about Sputnik V itself, analysts cite a general lack of trust in authorities and the health system.

Just 37% of Russians are satisfied with the quality of their healthcare system, compared with a global average of 65%, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

After the end of the Soviet Union, funding for the healthcare system collapsed, many highly skilled medical professionals emigrated and medical research slowed. In 2010, the government launched an ambitious plan to improve the quality of healthcare in Russia and upgrade medical facilities. But by 2019, the number of hospitals and available beds declined, and officials said the quality of services had deteriorated sharply.

“Nobody has touched the system infrastructure since the end of the ‘50s,” Veronika Skvortsova, then minister of health, said in 2019.

The distrust in government is a legacy of Russia’s Communist past, when Russians’ suspicion of authorities led many to rely on word-of-mouth and other informal sources of information, according to Margarita Zavadskaya, research fellow in political science at European University in St. Petersburg.

The Levada survey found that two-thirds of respondents believed the coronavirus is a man-made biological weapon. Among Russians who tend to rely on family and friends for information, nearly three-quarters believe it is a biological weapon.

“There’s a pattern of extremely low trust in all kinds of official authorities, other political institutions and the healthcare system,” Ms. Zavadskaya said.

Ms. Andreyeva in Kaliningrad said she tries to avoid relying on Russian healthcare in general.

“There is no help there, with rare exceptions,” she said. “The principle is—help yourself.”

Write to Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

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