It’s globally praised, works well & is registered in 60 nations, so why do more Russians not want the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine?

In August last year, Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against Covid-19. But, eight months later, despite Sputnik V's well-earned global reputation, domestic uptake has been disappointingly slow.

Developed by Moscow's Gamaleya Center and named after the first-ever artificial satellite, Sputnik V has garnered international plaudits, with health officials and experts from the likes of the US and Germany commending the impressive achievement of the Russian scientists.

An institute of epidemiology and microbiology, the Gamaleya Center is certainly no stranger to significant scientific breakthroughs, with successes fighting both Ebola and MERS.

The vaccine itself has a solid base. As a viral vector, Sputnik V is built in a similar way to the Oxford–AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and has exhibited no unusual side effects. There are some differences, however - for example, Sputnik V uses a human adenovirus, while Oxford–AstraZeneca uses the modified chimpanzee adenovirus.

And, what's more, it works. In February, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published data from the Gamaleya scientists showing that the shot is 91.6% effective.

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Moreover, there also doesn't appear to be a supply problem – especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where doses are readily available. In the capital, it's even possible to get vaccinated in the prestigious GUM shopping center, on Red Square, with a view of the Kremlin. Such availability is not restricted to the two capitals. In southern cities, such as Krasnodar and Sochi, the jab can easily be obtained in malls.

However, as of Friday, April 23, just 4.52% (6,614,080 people) of Russia's population has been fully immunized – a figure significantly lower than that seen in the likes of the US and the UK, both of which took longer to approve a jab. The proportion of inoculated Russians is even smaller than France and Germany, both parts of a European Union that famously stuttered at the start of its vaccination program.

Unlike the EU, the lack of people being inoculated against Covid-19 doesn't appear to be due to a shortage of doses – at least while desire for the vaccine remains low. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the country has had no problem giving shots to people who want them, but demand “leaves much to be desired.”

So, how did Russia's much-hyped vaccine-creation success end in so few citizens wanting to receive the shot?

Vaccine skepticism

The most significant factor, at least according to the available polling data, appears to be a lack of trust in vaccines in general.

In a paper published in March, research by Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse revealed that Russia ranked in the last place of eight selected countries, with around 30% wanting to be vaccinated against Covid-19. This figure is far below developing countries such as China, India, and Thailand, where more than four-fifths said they were willing.

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These findings are broadly similar to February polling by another company, the Levada Center, which found that just 30% of Russians were interested in Sputnik V, while 62% were completely against taking the shot, and 4% had already received it. The Levada Center is registered as a foreign agent by Russia's Ministry of Justice.

Credit Suisse's conclusions are consistent with its previous surveys, which also discovered that less than half of Russians trust domestic vaccines (38% in January 2021).

And it's not just vaccines that people don't seem to believe in. According to Vadim Pokrovsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences, citizens have very little trust in anything endorsed by the government.

“There are some people who completely oppose vaccination – not only against Covid-19,” Pokrovsky told Moscow daily Gazette. “Other people, especially those brought up during the Soviet Union, are instinctively suspicious if they think the state is actively promoting something.”

However, as the Credit Suisse report also noted, some have argued that the timing and circumstances around Sputnik V's approval may also have played a role in reducing the population's confidence in the Russian jab.

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The registration of Sputnik V was revealed by President Vladimir Putin on August 11 last year. Speaking on TV, he called it an “important moment for the whole world” and reassured Russians that it works “rather effectively” and “passed all the necessary inspections.” Even his daughter had been inoculated, he said.

However, at that point, the approved formula hadn't yet passed its phase three trial. This led to Moscow being accused of cutting corners to roll out the vaccine at a quicker rate than usual, skipping a vital part of the process.

While phase one and two results had been overwhelmingly positive, the lack of a third round of testing was cause for some concern and was slammed by some Western scientists as a “reckless and foolish decision” and a “political stunt.”

In particular, in the US, the country's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci expressed “serious doubts” that a “safe and effective” vaccine could have been produced after being tested on fewer than 100 subjects.

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However, once eventually conducted, the interim results from Phase III showed 91.6% efficacy. While this brought many experts around – including Dr. Fauci – Russians weren't entirely convinced. The positive data, published in February, still failed to have the desired effect of massively improving confidence in the shot.

Putin didn't get vaccinated early, and some doubt he got vaccinated at all

Unlike governments in many other countries, the Kremlin has been much less forceful in its push to encourage citizens to get immunized. The most prominent example of this is President Putin's refusal to be publically vaccinated.

 In December, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that the delay was due to “waiting for all formalities to be completed,” such as the Phase III trial, having previously noted that he “cannot use an uncertified vaccine.”

When Putin finally decided to get the jab – on March 23 – he made the unexpected decision of choosing to have it done in private. Other leaders, such as Britain's Boris Johnson, Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, and America's Joe Biden, have all received their jabs on camera.

The president's decision not to make his immunization a public event, and his refusal to name the particular vaccine he received, has led to a whole host of conspiracy theories, with some believing that he got a foreign jab instead of one made at home. Others say he was never even immunized at all – extra fuel for the already vaccine-skeptical population. However, the Kremlin said that his reticence in detailing the exact vaccine used was to avoid showing favoritism to one of the three domestically-produced jabs.

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This was further complicated when Peskov explained that Putin didn't like the idea of “vaccination under cameras,” despite him famously and repeatedly showing his bare torso on TV.

A day after Putin received his booster shot, Peskov claimed the president's personal example would be “mobilizing” and bring about “a very positive effect.” According to the stats, the daily number of people receiving their first jab has significantly jumped up since the president was inoculated – from 61,563 on March 23 to 184,151 on April 23. One can only imagine how much this could have been amplified if Putin was vaccinated earlier – and on TV.

Disinformation and negative press

Like the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in many other countries, the Russian campaign has been marred by vast amounts of disinformation, both online and in mainstream media.

On television, certain programs have focused on the potential negatives of vaccination. Scare stories, particularly regarding foreign vaccines, have often prominently featured on news channels. In particular, earlier in the year, the media frequently reported on the low number of deaths following vaccination by the Western-made AstraZeneca jab, especially those linked to blood clots.

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Prior to its rollout, the Vesti Nedeli program on Channel Russia 1 dubbed the AstraZeneca shot a 'monkey vaccine' - a description that could certainly have worried an already vaccine-skeptical audience. This segment led to condemnation in foreign media, most prominently in Britain's The Times, which claimed that "the Russians" were spreading fake news about the shot. In response, the Russian Embassy in London slammed the newspaper's report as "misinformation."

There has been plenty of disinformation about Russia's own Sputnik V jab, too. In particular, on social networks such as Vkontakte, WhatsApp, and TikTok, conspiracy theories about potential harm caused by the vaccine have run rampant.

On Telegram, channels like ‘Sorok Sorokov’ have promoted anti-vax content, slamming Sputnik V as “anti-human” and “including a cell line created on the cells of a murdered child.” The channel regularly shares videos and quotes from vaccine-skeptics, finding articles from anyone who notes any mild worry about vaccines.

For the youth, the most dangerous website for false information is TikTok. Popular with young Russians, the website is flooded with lies and misrepresentations. However, when speaking to German state-funded outlet DW, the company assured that it does not allow anti-vaccination content.

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According to Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist and senior researcher at RANEPA University, Russians have been flooded with disinformation about conspiracies, such as rumors that “people are being chipped or injected with something dangerous under the guise of vaccination.”

In fact, the situation with media reporting about Sputnik V even reached a point that the prosecutor general's office began actively blocking sites “with false information about the coronavirus and the mandatory ‘chipping’ of people.”

Lack of incentive

Another factor affecting the vaccine rollout is a simple lack of motivation for Russians to take the time to head down to a clinic. Although the country had a severe lockdown in spring 2020, restrictions have been relatively relaxed since the mass rollout of the vaccine program in January this year. With restaurants, bars, and nightclubs open, many people haven't felt the need to get the jab, with no incentive of additional freedom in exchange.

Furthermore, while some people in other countries are getting vaccinated ahead of a potential summer vacation, the size of Russia means that citizens can easily travel to the beach or a big city for a holiday without leaving the country. Flights around Russia are operating as usual, with some airlines utilizing their excess planes – typically used for international connections – to take more people to popular resorts, such as those in Sochi.

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For those who have had Covid-19, there is also a belief that there is no need to be vaccinated. According to Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, around 50% of Muscovites had coronavirus antibodies five months ago – a figure that should be much higher in April 2021.

What's next?

Inside the Kremlin, officials may be starting to worry about the lack of Russians opting to get immunized. As well as Peskov's admission that demand “leaves much to be desired,” Putin also appears to be amplifying his pro-vaccine message. On Wednesday, at his annual address to the Federal Assembly, the president used his nationwide platform, live on TV, to urge Russians to get inoculated.

“Vaccination is of crucial importance,” he told gathered officials. “The opportunity to take the jab must be available everywhere, so that we achieve the so-called herd immunity by the autumn.”

“The attainment of this goal depends on everyone, on all our citizens. Please, I am asking all citizens of Russia, once again, to get vaccinated.”

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With summer around the corner, the Kremlin will want to use the hot weather and lower infection figures to get more people inoculated to avoid a devastating new third wave in the fall. As long as the country can provide the supplies to match the demand, it can prevent any further disaster – it just depends if the people want it.

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