This week I got vaccinated with Sputnik V, the COVID-19 vaccine that Russian President Vladimir Putin is promoting as the best in the world.
As a resident of Moscow and a journalist, I’m entitled to the two-dose vaccine. So on Wednesday morning I walked up the street to City Polyclinic No. 5, a nondescript brick building in central Moscow, where I’d scheduled an appointment at 10:48 a.m.
At the entrance, I pulled a pair of disposable blue shoe covers — de rigueur footgear in all Russian hospitals — over my boots. A young woman measured my temperature, and I headed up to the fifth floor, where I filled out a questionnaire on my medical history. After a brief consultation with a doctor, a nurse administered my dose of Sputnik V with a deft jab to my left shoulder.
I’ve been covering Sputnik V since August, when Putin announced that Russia was the first country to register a COVID-19 vaccine — even though at the time clinical trials were still underway. The Kremlin saw itself in a race with Western pharmaceutical giants and tellingly named its vaccine after the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
Based on existing technology, Sputnik V uses adenoviruses, the kind of viruses that cause the common cold, to get the immune system to produce antibodies. From the very start, the Kremlin’s vaccine was as much a medical innovation as a geopolitical tool, designed to project Russian soft power at a time of worsening relations with the West.
Ironically, as the Kremlin closes deals with countries that are struggling to secure supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, ordinary Russians remain unenthusiastic about Sputnik V.
The goal of the Kremlin’s mass vaccination program, which started in December, is to inoculate 60% of population this year in the hopes of achieving herd immunity.
But people aren’t exactly lining up to get vaccinated. At Moscow’s Polyclinic No. 5, open slots are available two days in advance. Inoculation is free of charge and available to seniors and almost anyone else over 18 who is studying or working in a wide range of professions. According to the government research institute that developed Sputnik V, 2.2 million Russians have received at least the first dose of the vaccine — out of a population of more than 140 million. Putin’s spokesman says there’s no need to use “carrots and sticks” to coax Russians to get vaccinated faster.
A poll published by the independent Levada Center at the end of last year showed that 58% of Russians did not plan to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, while 38% did. Surprisingly, that reluctance extends to medical personnel; the nurse who vaccinated me said she still hadn’t received the vaccine herself.
One explanation for Russians’ skepticism is that many don’t believe their government after decades of being fed propaganda and outright lies. An additional factor is a Soviet-era distrust of the quality of domestically manufactured products.
I also had my doubts. I was weary of how Kremlin politics had co-opted what was supposed to be a scientific process. I was also unnerved by contradictory information distributed by health officials. For example, as Russia’s vaccine rollout began, the deputy prime minister for health policy, Tatyana Golikova, said people getting Sputnik V would have to abstain from alcohol for 42 days, or three weeks after each dose, so as not to overtax the immune system. She was promptly contradicted by the lead developer of Sputnik V, Alexander Gintsburg, who reassured Russians that the recommended dry spell after each shot was only three days.
The foreign vaccine experts I interviewed were in agreement that they had no issues with the actual science behind Sputnik V. And when the British medical journal The Lancet last week published interim results from Sputnik V phase 3 trials, showing an efficacy of almost 92%, I decided it would be irrational not to get vaccinated with it.
While I had concerns that Sputnik V might not be stored or transported correctly, in contrast to other vaccines it doesn’t need to be kept at super-cold temperatures. I also wanted to know how long Sputnik V will be effective, though this was hardly an argument against getting it — and nobody knows how long any COVID-19 vaccine will ward off the disease. At the end of the day, I decided Sputnik V is better than no protection at all, especially since the Russian government has not approved any foreign vaccines.
The extent to which COVID-19 has ravaged Russia is open to debate. According to the government’s coronavirus task force, there have been about 4 million infections and almost 80,000 deaths. But new numbers published by Russia’s statistics agency show that the country had 358,000 excess deaths in the last nine months of 2020. If, as the Russian government itself has said, 81% of excess mortality is linked to the coronavirus, then Russia’s COVID-19 death toll would be second only to the United States’.
Putin, 68, has taken every precaution to avoid the virus, limiting personal contacts to people who have sat out a two-week quarantine and passed through a custom-made disinfectant tunnel. Even from jail, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, 44, is mocking the Russian president as “the grandpa in the bunker” for his abundance of caution.
Yet Putin himself has still not opted to get vaccinated, despite his tireless promotion of Sputnik V. In December, he said he’d do so as soon as his age group was approved. Now that that’s happened, Putin has come up with a new excuse: He first has to receive other vaccinations and therefore can’t get Sputnik V until the end of the summer.
I could never wait that long. I’m already counting the days — 18 — until I can get my second dose of Sputnik V.