As Russia’s mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign got underway this week, thousands of Russians rolled up their sleeves and volunteered to be among the first to get their arms jabbed with a dose of Sputnik V.
Many others, however, appear to be holding back to see how things turn out for those who did.
“People are worried because they don’t understand how the vaccine is made, and they see a lot of controversy in the media,” said Dr. Yevgeny Timakov, a Moscow-based infectious disease specialist.
“Most of my patients — about 80 per cent — want to get vaccinated, but of those … [only] 20 per cent are ready to do it right now,” he told CBC News in an interview.
His observations reflect what might be a broad public hesitancy to take a vaccine that has been developed, approved and delivered to the public in a record-shattering time frame.
What Timakov is hearing from his patients echoes the findings of a public opinion survey done by the independent Lavada Institute in October. It suggests vaccine distrust among Russians has increased as the pandemic has worsened, with 59 per cent of those surveyed suggesting they are unwilling to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.
Another survey published around the same time by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported that more than 70 per cent of Russian did not plan to get vaccinated.
Still awaiting full Phase 3 results
Russia’s vaccine, whose name is meant to invoke memories of Soviet-era success in space, was the first in the world to be registered in August and since then, tens of thousands of health care workers, teachers, military personnel and others with government connections have taken it.
However, the vaccine’s initial success was championed on the basis of results involving a small sample of less than 100 volunteers.
Subsequent results derived from larger Phase 3 trials have validated those early findings, but Sputnik V’s developer has yet to publish those full results like Western vaccine developers have done.
Pfizer/BioNTech published its safety data yesterday as part of its approval process with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“People are wary of vaccination and are waiting for the end of clinical trials and [to] see that the vaccine works. All this they will see in time,” said Timakov, who supports the vaccine and is encouraging Russians to take it.
Its maker, the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, has said it hopes more than two million Russians can be vaccinated by the end of the month although it’s unclear if that target can be met.
Russia repeatedly promised a national vaccination program throughout the fall, but production delays kept pushing the start date back.
‘The right thing to do’
CBC News visited one of the 70 hospitals and clinics in the Moscow area that began administering the vaccine this week as part of the national immunization program.
Many of those who signed up to be among the first to get inoculated were health care workers, at higher risk of contracting the virus.
“You need to get vaccinated because you need to keep working,” said Dr. Olga Maskova.
Like everyone else who received the vaccine, Maskova was handed an information sheet listing the possible short-term side effects, including chills, fever and skin irritation.
“I’m absolutely convinced that this is the right step,” she said. “Later, the vaccine might be perfected, and maybe there will be other vaccines, but I think this is the right thing to do at this time.”
Sputnik V is an adenovirus-based platform that uses a modified common cold virus to trigger the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against the coronavirus and requires a booster shot 21 days after the first injection.
It’s a similar process to the one used by Oxford University and AstraZeneca for its vaccine.
India, South Korea, U.A.E. sign on for Sputnik
Western experts have been split on the Russian vaccine, with some bemoaning the lack of transparency of the trials and the reliance on early data to draw sweeping conclusions about its effectiveness.
Others, however, argue the science behind the vaccine is proven, and it will likely make an important contribution to fighting the virus globally once it is in widespread use.
Natalia Kuzinkova, the chief doctor at Clinic No. 68, the facility CBC News visited, said she understands there may be reticence to be among the first to get vaccinated but that the risks of waiting are far greater.
“My role as a doctor is to explain the risks there will be if they don’t take the vaccine,” she said. “Yes, I hear the opinions, but my responsibility is to tell them that if they haven’t been sick yet, they could still get sick and die.”
The Kremlin has fought an intense global public relations campaign to sell its vaccine to COVID-weary customers abroad but also to demonstrate Russian superiority in an area that was once a point of pride for the former Soviet Union: vaccine production.
Few Western governments, with the notable exception of Hungary in the European Union, have thus far expressed an interest in the Russian vaccine. However, dozens of nations in other parts of the world, including India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, have signed agreements to buy it.
Process moving too fast, say some
While some of the concerns over the virus are clearly rooted in the adversarial nature of the relationship between Putin and his counterparts in Europe and North America, they have also been amplified by Russia’s own bragging about the vaccine’s success and the timing of proclamations that appeared designed to one-up announcements by Western vaccine makers.
The CBC News team in Moscow visited the Kuznetsky Most pedestrian mall a few blocks from the Kremlin to ask people at random if they planned to sign up for the vaccination.
Most told us they would not.
“I don’t trust this vaccine,” said Artyom Bagamayev. “The trials usually take many years, but here, it’s just a bit too fast.”
“In the past, it was an arms race, but now, it’s a biological one, a vaccine race.”
Natalia Panfilova agreed.
“You can’t produce an effective vaccine in such a short period of time and test it and say it’s effective,” she said. “I don’t understand if it works or if it doesn’t work or how effective it is.”
Putin not yet vaccinated
The potential for vaccine hesitancy is clearly not unique to Russia, but it may be accentuated by a longstanding lack of trust in the country’s health care system.
Hospitals in many parts of the country are being overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, and social media has been inundated with videos shot by patients showing deplorable conditions.
So far during this second wave of coronavirus cases, Russian authorities in most cities, including the capital, Moscow, have been reluctant to invoke lockdowns because of the heavy economic toll it might inflict on an already struggling economy.
The severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 500 deaths a day, also makes getting a large public buy-in to the vaccine program even more essential if the virus is to be brought under control.
While many prominent Russians have been shown on TV getting their vaccinations, the most prominent person in the country, and the vaccine’s biggest cheerleader, so far has not.
The Kremlin says Putin has not taken the two doses of COVID-19 and has not yet offered a time frame on when he will do so.
WATCH | Why some Russians are wary of getting the Sputnik V vaccine: