Russia had the first Covid vaccine. Now its population don't seem to want it.

MOSCOW – In August 2020, Russia became the first country in the world to register a Covid-19 vaccine. President Vladimir Putin announced the news on national television, saying one of his daughters had already been vaccinated.

Back then, Russia was ahead of other countries in its efforts to vaccinate its people.

Instead, 10 months after Sputnik V was approved, Russia’s vaccination rate is one of the lowest in countries where vaccines are widely used.

According to Our World in Data, an Oxford University surveillance project, only 14 percent of the 146 million people in Russia were vaccinated with at least one dose, compared with 53.5 percent of Americans.

An ambitious plan to vaccinate 30 million Russians by June – giving away cars and free groceries – is a third off the mark.

There are three Russia-made vaccines that are approved for use in Russia, and the country has sold Sputnik V to countries around the world, including Turkey and Brazil. Vaccines made in Russia are the only ones available to most Russians, and supplies are plentiful. Researchers say the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine is about 91 percent effective.

The Kremlin said in a statement on Friday that there are bottlenecks in some areas, such as the level of “growing demand”. But many just don’t trust the recordings made in Russia.

Samyr Oynushev, a musician from Moscow, has no plans to get vaccinated but believes Covid vaccines are necessary.

“If I had a choice, I’d rather take a non-Russian vaccine,” said the 29-year-old.

“I think that [low vaccination rates] are primarily the government’s fault that people don’t trust them so much. “

Others feel that after recovering from Covid-19, there is no need to rush to get vaccinated. According to a study published in the journal Nature, around 45 percent of the adult population of Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, have antibodies against the coronavirus.

Moscow Samyr Oynushev, 29Mitya Solovyov / NBC News

Epidemiologist Vasily Vlassov, a professor at the Moscow School of Economics, has not yet been vaccinated and believes his antibodies are still protecting him from infection after contracting Covid-19 in January.

Although vaccination was widely accepted in the former Soviet Union, hesitation began in the 1990s after the fall of communism, when people realized they could make decisions for themselves, he said.

“Russians know that German cars are better than Russian cars, and they have a problem believing that a Russian vaccine is better,” he said.

Vlassov is currently considering getting the Pfizer vaccine in Israel, which is widely used there.

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Despite his initial enthusiasm for the vaccine, Putin has provided no evidence other than a brief government statement that he received a Russian-made syringe. Unlike other world leaders who were photographed with their sleeves rolled up or even their chests bared while receiving their shot, no such picture of Putin has been posted.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 rates and deaths are skyrocketing in Russia. After a decline in infections, the country is now reporting similar numbers to February, mainly due to the Delta variant. In Moscow, almost 90 percent of reported cases have been linked to the variant, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said last week.

The national coronavirus task force said Saturday that 619 people died last day, most since December 24. Russia also reported the highest daily Covid-19 death toll of the year at 21,665 cases.

These rising rates, as well as reluctance to get vaccinated, have resulted in officials offering incentives to residents, including opportunities to acquire new cars. In Moscow, city authorities have given public sector employers a month to ensure that 60 percent of their employees are vaccinated or face a fine.

Sobyanin ordered bars and restaurants in the capital to only serve people if they are vaccinated or have had an infection that suggests immunity. And unvaccinated people could soon be denied hospitalization. This practice has led to a flourishing black market for fake vaccination cards.

Muscovite Natalia Andreeva, 63Mitya Solovyov / NBC News

Natalia Andreeva, a laboratory diagnostician in Moscow, has yet to be vaccinated but has accepted that she has to be in the future.

“It inevitably has to be done,” said Andreeva, 63. “I think a lot of people are afraid of the vaccination because it all happened very quickly.”

There is evidence that the officials’ incentives and threats appear to be working. In the last week, the vaccination rate in Moscow has increased four or five times, said Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova on the state news channel Russia-24.

However, epidemiologist Anton Barchuk, who conducted the antibody prevalence study in St. Petersburg, suggests that a more open discussion of the pros and cons would be a more effective way of convincing people to get vaccinated.

“The pandemic has highlighted the problems with vaccination delay,” he said, adding that adult uptake of other vaccines is also low. “It’s a trust issue and a lack of information about the harms and benefits of vaccinations.”

Tatiana Tschistikowa reported from Moscow, Rachel Elbaum from London. Reuters also contributed to this report.

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