Russia has started off the month of July with a doubly record-breaking week as it battles two waves: a massive heatwave that has produced some of the highest temperatures Russia has seen in over a century and a third wave of coronavirus infections.
The past two weeks have been extremely difficult for Russia as its number of coronavirus deaths repeatedly hit record-breaking highs. The surge in cases is driven primarily by the Delta variant, which accounts for as many as ninety percent of all new cases. The Delta variant is the most contagious version of the coronavirus worldwide and spreads about 225 percent faster than the original version of the virus. Even more alarmingly, Russia has just recorded its first case of Delta Plus, a mutation of the Delta variant that may prove even more resistant to antibodies.
In St. Petersburg, hospitals are struggling to cope with an influx of patients and a lack of adequate supplies, all the while sweltering in July heat and full protective gear. But not everyone is feeling the heat of the pandemic. “Unless I watch the news, this subject doesn’t touch me at all,” Oksana, a mother of three living in St. Petersburg, told the National Interest. “In St. Petersburg, everyone walks around without masks. Everything is open. I can go to a restaurant, to the movies. I don’t wear a mask and no one asks me to.”
Like many other Russians, she harbors some misgivings about coronavirus vaccines. A poll conducted by the Levada Center conducted in early July indicates that 54 percent of Russians are not prepared to get vaccinated despite the mounting surge of cases. Of those who were resistant to vaccination, thirty-three percent cited fear of adverse side effects as their main reservation, while twenty percent said they were waiting for the complete results of clinical trials.
For her part, Oksana subscribes to a belief not uncommon in Russia that vaccines actually undermine a person’s immune response to the virus by damaging the body’s natural immune response. The best immune response is supposedly the one your body generates naturally and the side effects she fears are not the aches and fatigue that sometimes accompany a coronavirus vaccine, but rather the potential to develop an auto-immune disorder.
There is no data to suggest that this is true. However, ideas such as these are circulating among some with medical credentials or even doctors. Oksana’s mother, who also has strong fears about vaccination, is a doctor and teaches in a medical school. Likewise, Russian anti-vaccine activist Galina Chervonskaya is a member of the Russian National Committee on Bioethics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Although her YouTube videos include the disclaimer that Chervonskaya’s theses about vaccination have been repeatedly refuted by specialists and doctors, Chervonskaya’s followers consider her to be one of the few authorities they can turn to for reliable vaccine information.
Notably, Chervonskaya’s theories surrounding the perceived dangers of vaccination tap into the belief that things were better or more trustworthy in Soviet times. Chervonskaya claims anecdotally that because of mass vaccination, the Russian population has been growing progressively weaker and that children today are significantly less healthy than those who grew up under communism.
Increased trust in familiar Soviet-style medicine may be one of the reasons Russians are lining up in droves for doses of the CoviVac vaccine. Maksim Tersky, the chief physician at Moscow’s AO Meditsina hospital, has observed that it is manufactured in small batches, and that scarcity signals desirability, particularly for generations of people who remember standing in lines for items in short supply during the Soviet Union. Additionally, the vaccine was developed by the Chumakov Center, founded during the Khrushchev era, and uses familiar Soviet technology.
This contrasts sharply with the heavily promoted Sputnik V. Sputnik V is an adenovirus vaccine, meaning it consists of a genetically engineered harmless version of the virus that causes an immune response without causing illness. Genetically modified organism (GMO) technology is significantly newer than the type of vaccine technology employed by CoviVac, which employs technology common in Soviet times, and may for that reason be more familiar and acceptable to vaccine-hesitant Russians.
Although Russia is currently facing an uphill battle as it works to vaccinate its population, what is clear is that many if not most vaccine-hesitant Russians are not uninformed or anti-scientific. Many of them have done research and made decisions about vaccination based on the testimony of people believed to be trusted experts or their own reading.
That twenty percent of Russians surveyed said they were waiting for more complete data suggests that being more transparent regarding the clinical trial results of Russia’s four domestically developed vaccines would go a long way towards increasing confidence in vaccines and would likewise help Russia in its push to get its vaccines approved for international use by the World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency. As it stands, none of Russia’s vaccine developers have released complete phase III clinical trial results. However, the data that does exist points to the safety and efficacy of all four vaccines.
Sergey Kharitonov, a molecular biologist at Moscow State University, told Kommersant that it’s possible Russians are seeking CoviVac as an alternative to Sputnik V, and that it may be the vaccine of choice for those who are “tired of propaganda.” This suggests that the messaging surrounding vaccines is very important, and that trust in Sputnik V—the first coronavirus vaccine approved anywhere in the world—was severely damaged by the circumstances of its approval.
Can this trust be repaired? Judy Twigg, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on public health in Ukraine and Russia, says that there are several steps that should be taken to alter the cost-benefit calculation. “I think we’ll see more people getting the shots as they see that their friends and family have done it without serious adverse effects. Another important measure would be more systematic efforts to get physicians and other medical staff to send more consistent, one-on-one pro-vaccine messaging to their patients,” Twigg said.
At the moment, around 16 percent of Russians have been vaccinated, partially or fully. The Kremlin no longer expects to meet its goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the population by the fall. Several regions of Russia have attempted to combat vaccine hesitancy by making vaccination mandatory for certain segments of the population. Those who do not comply risk losing their jobs. These policies have been largely unpopular and have inadvertently spurred a black market for falsified vaccine certifications.
But despite their unpopularity, Russia’s vaccine mandates appear to be driving up vaccination rates. For months, coronavirus vaccines have been both abundant and free as Russia struggled to convince its population to line up for the jabs. But now with the implementation of vaccine mandates and the alarming surge in cases, demand has begun to outstrip supply.
Twigg believes this can be attributed at least in part to vaccine mandates.
“If we look at the vaccination numbers since the mandates took force, it’s not a terrible outcome so far,” Twigg said. “Published vaccine rates are going up in Moscow, and we’re hearing stories of lines at vaccine clinics in many of the regions as well. The mandates have been an important step forward, and many leaders in the private sector are arguing for even more stringent vaccination requirements.”
According to Twigg, the true measure of the policy’s success will come in the fall when the weather gets colder, and people start congregating indoors. “If they haven’t reached an adequate vaccination threshold by then,” Twigg said, “there may be no choice but to return to some kind of lockdown measures—and that’s true everywhere, not just in Russia.”
Lillian Posner is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest.