Russia has become the first country in the world to start a mass coronavirus immunization drive. The government hopes its vaccination efforts can help stem a resurgent second wave of the pandemic.
Russia began distributing its COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday, with Moscow as the focal point for people to participate in the first mass vaccination against the virus.
The Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine will be distributed at 70 clinics around Moscow, but it has been made available first to doctors and other medical workers, teachers and social workers. The government has deemed these groups to be at the highest risk of exposure to the disease.
But the age for those receiving the vaccine has been capped at 60, while people with certain underlying health conditions, pregnant women and those who have had a respiratory illness in the past two weeks have also been excluded from vaccination.
“Over the first five hours, 5,000 people signed up for the jab — teachers, doctors, social workers, those who are today risking their health and lives the most,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote on his personal website on Friday, ahead of the vaccination drive kickoff.
Moscow has been the epicenter of Russia’s coronavirus outbreak, registering 7,993 new cases in the city overnight, up from 6,868 a day before. The numbers are well above the daily tallies of around 700 seen in early September.
Despite a resurgent second wave, the government has not reimposed strict lockdown measures, choosing to keep restaurants open, albeit with an 11 p.m. curfew. It has encouraged people to work from home, without restricting people’s movements.
“The government and the authorities have repeated that the situation is under control and that they don’t want to lock the country down perhaps because of this vaccine that they’re rolling out,” said Emily Sherwin, a DW correspondent in Moscow.
Participants looking for ‘peace of mind’
Dmitry Babakov, a social worker who works at a government job and career support center in Moscow, was among those to get the shot on Saturday. He told DW he wanted to get the vaccine for his “own peace of mind as well as the peace of mind of the people I’m close to.”
“Around 200 or 300 people from across the whole of Moscow come through our center every day. And we never know who might have been where, who they may have been in contact with. So the likelihood of the coronavirus spreading is quite high,” said the 42-year-old.
Natalia Kuzenkova, the head doctor of the City Polyclinic Number 68, defended the rush to distribute the vaccine in Russia.
“We are simply taking care of people. We want to create herd immunity. We could wait for a long time while everyone gets COVID, but of course that carries significant risks for the population, how sick some people get,” she said.
“So that is why we want to protect people, particularly the sections of society who cannot self-isolate but have to work with people all the time. That is medical personnel, social workers and teachers.”
The Sputnik V vaccine will be administered in two injections, with the second dose expected to be given 21 days after the first.
Russia has so far developed two COVID-19 vaccines, Sputnik V which is backed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, and a separate one developed by Siberia’s Vector Institute. Final trials for both vaccines have not been completed.
Scientists have raised concerns about the speed at which Russia has given the regulatory go-ahead for vaccine distribution and, in particular, that it has launched a mass vaccination effort before full trials to test its safety and efficacy had been completed.
Analysts said Russia’s swift vaccination drive has a political component to it.
“The vaccination can be compared with the space race,” Ilya Graschenkov, a political scientist and head of the Center for the Development of Regional Politics, told DW.
“The main thing is to stake a claim on being first — the first country to produce a vaccine and the first to start vaccinating people,” Graschenkov added.
Russia has already delivered its vaccine samples to countries such as Hungary, Serbia and Venezuela, while negotiating production deals with India and China.