Russia's low infection numbers viewed skeptically as demand grows for more action

MOSCOW – According to official figures, Russia can boast one of the most effective coronavirus reactions in the world with 367 confirmed cases on Sunday. According to the data, none of them were fatal.

This is not for lack of testing. Russian government officials say they have performed over 140,000 tests. For comparison, the United States reported over 25,000 positive results from a similar number of tests, according to Johns Hopkins University.

While Russian officials attribute the low numbers to aggressive border controls and closings, some experts warn that actual infection rates could be much higher, with President Vladimir Putin’s government intending to maintain a picture of calm authority, regardless of what may actually be happens on the ground.

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Putin said the situation was “generally under control”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech in Sevastopol in Crimea on Wednesday.Alexander Nemenov / Reuters

“Thanks to immediate measures that were taken proactively … in the first weeks of the epidemic, we managed to curb the massive – I would like to underline – massive penetration and spread of the infection in Russia,” said Putin.

The first measures were drastic.

According to reports of Coronavirus outbreaks in China in January, Russia quickly closed its large land border and banned all Chinese citizens from entering the country in February. Recent efforts have focused on quarantining foreigners entering from coronavirus hotspots.

However, Ivan Konovalov, a spokesman for the Doctors’ Alliance, a professional organization that is loosely connected to the Russian opposition and has attracted attention by highlighting health system problems, says that these measures may not have effectively blocked the disease.

Instead, the authorities most likely use pneumonia as a cover for coronavirus cases, he said.

“According to some reports, some of the coronavirus cases are masked as so-called community-transmitted pneumonia,” he told NBC News. “Patients are diagnosed with pneumonia without being tested for coronavirus, which could be the cause.”

On March 13, the Russian statistics agency reported a 37 percent increase in pneumonia in Moscow, the capital, in January compared to the same month last year.

However, the Moscow government made a contradictory statement later that day, which indicated that the January 2020 cases were more likely to decrease by 7 percent.

Officials from Russia’s Rospotrebnadzor consumer security group, which leads coronavirus testing and data retention, did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. Neither did the officials of the Moscow Ministry of Health.

Dr. Samuel Greene, an expert on Russia at King’s College, London, said he “hopes” that the Russian government’s actions have kept the numbers low, but believes that journalistic and anecdotal evidence suggests an infection rate that ” probably higher “is significant.”

“The idea that Russia could somehow isolate itself from it is in a line that Putin’s political team has long used that Russia is an island of stability,” he said.

Putin will further strengthen his power on April 22 if the country is to hold a national referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to remain president until 2036.

As the government tries to bring home a sense of calm and control, there is a growing public and civil society feeling that a bigger problem is brewing beneath the surface of official numbers.

Some experts have questioned the competence of the Russian corona virus tests, which are currently provided by a single laboratory in Siberia. An investigation into an online medical publication, PCR News, found that official numbers may be low because the test may not detect mild cases.

“It’s a matter of sensitivity,” Aleksey Torgashev, chief editor of PCR and one of the authors of the report, told NBC News. “The guaranteed lower limit of the test is 100,000 plasmids per milliliter. The sensitivity of other modern tests is two orders of magnitude higher. “

Up until this week, this test was the only one approved by the State Consumer Protection Commissioner for Health and Safety. Newer and more sensitive tests have now been approved, but Torgashev says this is a slow process, and at the moment the Siberian test is the only one used.

“We don’t know the actual epidemiological situation of the coronavirus in the country,” he said. “It may turn out to be the same as the official data, or it may be completely different.”

In addition to test sensitivity, Russia’s test strategy continues to focus on tracking cases that come into the country – now mainly on Russians returning from abroad – and cases that they have come into contact with, as well as pneumonia patients.

While the Russian authorities insisted on keeping the situation under control, last week they began to drastically step up measures to contain the virus. On Wednesday, with few exceptions, Russia banned the entry of all foreigners and set strict limits for public meetings. Gyms and pools were ordered closed on Saturday.

However, given the scale of the crisis in the United States, Europe, and Asia, some Russians are increasingly concerned that the government is downplaying the threat and not doing enough. The streets of Moscow – although still full – are slowly emptying, as are the shelves.

The Moscow Ministry of Transport reported on March 20 that subway traffic had dropped 30 percent and buses and trolleys also saw a 24 percent drop in traffic. Reports of runs with buckwheat, a Russian staple, have led to talks about price controls.

Although the government is currently reluctant to enforce, more and more businesses and citizens are assuming social distance measures, even though officials continue to encourage calm.

“I’m really only self-isolating because we were asked to work from home,” said Olga Kuzmina, 30, a communications consultant in Moscow.

“Otherwise, I don’t take it that seriously and I still go outside every second day to go for walks and trips to the grocery store. If the infection rates are really as low as they say, the Moscow officials at least seem to be using common sense act. “

However, some are calling on the government to act faster and stronger.

“If we don’t want the Italian scenario, urgent action is needed,” said a petition on, filed on March 20, calling on the government to take stricter measures to fight the virus.

Referring to examples from abroad, the petition states: “The number of infected people drastically exceeds the official data and, depending on the quality of the tests, can reach thousands or even tens of thousands of people.”

Since Friday, the petition has drawn over 85,000 signatures, ranging from citizens to prominent journalists, doctors, politicians and other civil society figures. And there are signs that the government will choose a stronger response if the Russians are interested in the idea.

In an interview on state-funded RT, broadcast on March 20, the head of one of the infectious disease hospitals in Moscow dedicated to treating coronavirus patients told viewers that Russia was facing two results.

“I watch what’s happening around the world,” said Dr. Denis Protsenko. “If we follow the Chinese scenario, I hope that it will be over in May or June. If we follow the Italian explosion, we can see September as a good scenario. “

Matthew Bodner reported from Moscow, Luke Denne from London.

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