Why Russia's COVID deaths are peaking a year after its vaccine was approved
Ulyana was in the middle of a haircut when it happened. Sitting inside a St. Petersburg beauty salon, she was chatting with other customers when the topic of vaccines came up. One women declared that she refused to be the Russian government's lab rat, and the other women murmured in agreement. Ulyana then told her hairdresser, Katya, that she'd gotten the Sputnik-V vaccine and felt fine.
Katya was shocked. The hairdresser got out her scissors and slowly moved them toward Ulyana's shoulders. She believed Ulyana had a microchip in her shoulder.
"I was speechless," said Ulyana, a 31-year-old consultant. "She explained to me that in the videos she had seen on the internet, vaccinated people could stick metal objects like coins to their bodies in the place of injection because the 'vaccine chip' draws them."
The hairdresser showed Ulyana the Instagram video she'd seen, as well as a Telegram group she subscribed to. The group's members, numbering in the thousands, spoke of how the government would be able to use the vaccine to implant a microchip that would give it the power to control someone "like a video game character."
"I have known Katya for a while, and she is a nice girl," Ulyana said. "I have always imagined people who might believe in all those conspiracy theories are weirdos in tinfoil hats. She is a normal person, a working mom with a kid."
Russia has a dreadful vaccine hesitancy problem. Its Sputnik-V vaccine was authorized a year ago, in August 2020, and deployed in December. But nine months later, just 19% of Russians are estimated to be fully vaccinated. The more transmissible delta variant is proving ruinous in the face of such limited defenses. Case numbers are going up, and unlike in the more vaccinated US and UK, deaths are shooting up too. The country recorded 799 deaths on Wednesday, Aug. 11, an all-time high.
The official statistics say 164,000 Russians have died from COVID-19 but, with excess deaths standing at 531,000 since the pandemic began, experts analyzing excess mortality data estimate the true death toll could be triple the official count. That Vladimir Putin's administration can't be counted on to provide legitimate COVID numbers is part of the problem: After years of the government sowing disinformation, many Russians don't trust the Kremlin when it tells them to get vaccinated. With so many seeds of distrust planted, conspiracy theories flourish.
When Ulyana was accused by her hairdresser of having a chip in her shoulder, she laughed it off. She tried to tell Katya that the videos were fake. Katya rejected the argument -- instead reasoning that "they" switched the chips off after being exposed by the viral videos.
V for victory
When Sputnik-V was made available to the Russian public in December, authorities hoped 60% of adults would be vaccinated by July. The failure to reach this milestone doesn't reflect lethargy among Russians. In fact, many Russians have proved remarkably energetic — in their efforts to avoid vaccination.
The country is home to a thriving black market for vaccination certificates, which are required for many hospitality, retail and transport employees to return to work. State TV last month warned of a growing trend, evidently spawned by a viral TikTok video, that sees Russians eluding the jab by getting the injection in a prosthetic limb.
COVID denialism and vaccine skepticism exist everywhere, but Russia has a unique problem. Much of the population harbors a specific distrust of the Russian-made Sputnik-V vaccine.
"Sputnik-V has a horrible reputation in the country," said Andrei Soldatov, an author and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a nonprofit public policy group. "Everybody hates it."
Sputnik-V was developed with exceptional speed at Moscow's Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. Russian scientists had a prototype vaccine in March 2020 before the city even went into lockdown, around a month before the Trump administration accelerated US vaccine production with Operation Warp Speed. It was August 2020 when the Sptunik-V was approved, with Putin assuring the public that the vaccine had "gone through all the necessary checks."
Many Russians became convinced that authorization of Sputnik-V had more to do with Russia clearing a vaccine before the US than anything else. This is implied by the name: Sputnik is a reference to the satellite the Soviets launched into space, embarrassing the US in the early Cold War years, while the V is for victory. This perception became stronger when Putin was found to be speaking dishonestly. At the time he said Sputnik-V had been clinically verified, Phase III trials, which test the safety and efficacy of a vaccine against a placebo, had yet to even begin.
That reputation has stuck, even a year after Sputnik-V was authorized, according to Ekaterina Borozdina, an associate professor in sociology at the European University in St. Petersburg, who's been surveying educated professionals about vaccine hesitancy.
"Respondents were concerned that vaccination campaigns are designed to reach some state-level goals, including purely political goals related to a kind of competition with other [countries]," she said via email, adding that respondents often felt that any health risks associated with taking a vaccine aren't as important to bureaucrats as ratcheting up vaccination statistics.
The Kremlin's apparent obsession with vaccine supremacy may have undermined the credibility of what appears to be a legitimate vaccine. Sputnik-V is used not just in Russia, but also in countries like Argentina, Hungary and India, and the Phase III data published in The Lancet medical journal shows a 91.6% efficacy in blocking transmission. (Phase III trials took place prior to the delta variant's spread.)
Its rapid development can be chalked up to the Gamaleya Institute's expediency: It began working away at a vaccine as soon as scientists released the genome sequence for the coronavirus, in January 2020, and it used as a foundation the work it had already done to craft vaccines for the Ebola virus and the MERS coronavirus.
"If you have the [vaccine] platform well established, then it is an easy matter to go from MERS to COVID," explained Nikolai Petrovsky, a vaccine researcher and vice president of the International Immunomics Society. "The published data suggest that Sputnik-V is a reasonable vaccine very similar to AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Adenovirus vaccines.
"But while it might be a good vaccine, people have a right to be skeptical given the absence of reliable data."
Even after it was deployed for widespread use in December, Putin hurt public perception of Sputnik by avoiding vaccination until March. Unusually for a president renowned for ostentatious photo ops, the Kremlin sent out no video or photo of the event. He didn't even say which vaccine he received -- not until two months later, after much questioning, did he reveal it was Sputnik-V.
Denial and skepticism
When Russia was found to have systematically doped its Olympic athletes in the run-up to 2014's Sochi Games, the sports minister offered an apology. Later that year he was promoted to deputy prime minister. Ulyana thinks that well-known misdeeds like this hurt the Russian government's credibility, which matters when that same government is beseeching citizens to roll up their sleeves for a vaccine.
"It naturally creates a lot of mistrust in the society when people see that our officials face no real consequences even after being called out for their actions by the international community," she said.
Though Sputnik-V supplies have been lacking in parts of Russia, trust appears to be the resource its government needs most to battle COVID-19. The country's population trusts its business, media and government institutions less than any other country's population polled by Edelman for the firm's annual Trust Barometer. Tellingly, just 15% of Russians surveyed last October and November for the 2021 Trust Barometer said they'd get a COVID vaccination as soon as possible, compared with 33% of Americans, 48% of Brazilians and 51% of Indians.
Conspiracy theories have unsurprisingly proliferated in such an atmosphere of mistrust. Among those theories is the belief, shared by 66% of Russians, that COVID-19 was created in a lab as a biological weapon. The conspiracy theory that billionaires like Bill Gates are using the vaccine to reduce the global population to 1 billion is also popular, as is the theory that claims face masks contain infectious "nanoworms."
The Kremlin may have inadvertently fueled conspiracy theories about Sputnik-V as it relentlessly spun disinformation about foreign vaccines, which are banned in the country. Facebook has pulled over 300 Russia-linked accounts that were spreading vaccine misinformation. State TV regularly amplifies any misfortunes that befall the small percentage of Pfizer and Moderna recipients who experience side effects, and one of Russia's most famous TV pundits last year denounced AstraZeneca as a "monkey vaccine" because Oxford built the vaccine off a variant of COVID that infects chimpanzees. The result may be greater skepticism of vaccines in general, not just Western ones.
Faced with such ardent suspicion, the Kremlin at first tried to win over Russians with a sweet deal. Governments offered mobile vaccinations, free ice cream or even free money in exchange for vaccinations. Now, with the delta variant running rampant, the Kremlin is making vaccination mandatory for public-facing workers, like hospitality and retail employees. As of late June, Muscovites need to be vaccinated to enter restaurants.
The strategy is turning Russian politics on its head, with Putin's usual critics becoming supporters of the Kremlin's vaccine drive.
"The most liberal part of the society, which is usually more critical of the government, they are pushing for more [government] control in terms of restrictions," said Soldatov of CEPA. "The rest of the population, which usually is more in favor of the government, they are getting more suspicious of the vaccine."
Seeking solutions, Putin's administration may be looking to introduce more vaccine variety into the country. Last week it approved trials to see how the AstraZeneca vaccine works in tandem with Sputnik-V, indicating it may break its moratorium on international vaccines.
For Ulyana, however, the solution isn't more vaccines. It's more honesty.
"I wish the authorities could at least acknowledge some of their past mistakes and start an honest dialogue about the issue," she said. "It's really critical. The death rates are the highest since the beginning of the pandemic."
She's tired of arguing with vaccine deniers, she says. "Especially when you simply want to get a haircut."