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Russia's free mass vaccination program on a roll

Emily Sherwin Moscow
February 11, 2021

Russia's COVID-19 infections have been falling since the end of December and restrictions in the country have been loosened. In Moscow, free shots of the country's Sputnik V jab come with a helping of ice cream.

People stand in a queue to get a shot of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in a vaccination center in GUM State Department store in Moscow
Initially there were large lines when Sputnik V became available at the GUM department store in JanuaryImage: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

Cross the cobbles of Red Square and step up to the legendary GUM department store. Wander through 19th century glass arcades that housed scarce consumer goods in the Soviet era. Pass the new luxury fashion stores and glitzy winter decorations. You'll find the vaccination point right across from Gucci.

 Russia's vaccine Sputnik V has been available here since January 18. It's free, you don't have to make an appointment to get the jab and you get a free chocolate glazed popsicle. The set-up feels like the perfect advertisement for Sputnik V, which — in a nod to the Cold War space race — was named after the world's first satellite.

People stand in a queue to get a shot of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in a vaccination center in GUM State Department store in Moscow
Initially there were large lines when Sputnik V became available at the GUM department store in JanuaryImage: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

The vaccine became available to some at-risk groups, including medical and social workers in early December, with more groups being added incrementally. In January, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, announced the launch of a "mass vaccination" program. Last week, Moscow's mayor announced that 400,000 people have been vaccinated in the capital, which has at least 12 million inhabitants. There are around 100 hospitals that carry the vaccine in Moscow. It's also available at around a dozen vaccination points, including several shopping centers and an opera house.

At GUM department store, there are no big lines for the vaccine, but a steady stream of people — young and old — arrive to get the jab, even on a weekday.

"Russia has the best vaccines and the best medicine," Ekaterina Avonina tells DW. The young woman says she had the coronavirus six months ago but doesn't want to get sick again. She never had any doubts about Sputnik V. "I was on a walk here yesterday with girlfriends and saw they were doing vaccinations. I've wanted to get the jab for a while. So I came to get it today."

An ice cream seller at the vaccination point at the GUM department store in Moscow
People who get the jab at GUM get Soviet-style ice cream after the shotImage: Emily Sherwin/DW

Interestingly, the volunteers and employees helping with the vaccination effort at GUM estimate around a third of those getting the jab at the department store are foreigners, though there are no numbers to confirm that. "I didn't even know there were so many foreigners living in Moscow," says Sofia Markova, as she hands out ice cream to patients.

US-born musician Josh Lanza raves about getting Sputnik at "a historical moment and in the middle of this beautiful building right on Red Square."

George Tewson, a Brit currently living in Moscow, came to get the shot with his Russian wife. Tewson insists he doesn't feel like he is part of a Russian propaganda drive. "One of the ways out of the situation we're in is through people getting vaccinated. So if you have the opportunity to get the vaccine, why wouldn't you?" he says, explaining he recently got over his initial doubts about Sputnik. "This is for my personal benefit. If they want to politicize things — then that's why politicians are politicians."

Viktoria Polienko and George Tewson pose at GUM after having their first vaccination with Sputnik V
Brit George Tewson says his Russian wife Viktoria Polienko needed some convincing to get the jabImage: Emily Sherwin/DW

The race for the vaccine

For Russia, the vaccine rollout is clearly a matter of national pride. There are two registered vaccines in the country and a third one on the way. Just this week, Russia handed in an application to get EU approval for Sputnik V. Hungary has already approved it. The Russian vaccine is also available in several non-EU countries, including Argentina and Serbia

Last week, peer-reviewed research published in The Lancet showed the vaccine to be 91,6% effective. The article boosted confidence in the Russian jab after months of skepticism at what some said was a bungled phase three trial and a rushed rollout.

But so far it seems Russians themselves don't trust their own vaccine. Regular surveys carried out by the independent pollster Levada Center showed over half of Russians don't want to get the Sputnik V jab (58% in December).

A medical worker holds an ampoule with the first component of the Sputnik V vaccine
The EU is currently looking into approving Sputnik V after initial skepticism from Western scientistsImage: Sergei Bobylev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Ahead of the curve

Despite the early start and the fact that the vaccine is now open to nearly all groups of the population, the country's vaccination campaign is comparatively slow. According to one of the companies that developed the vaccine, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, over 1 million people in Russia have gotten the jab. Authorities recently announced they plan to vaccinate over 68 million people, or 60% of Russians this year — and only that would allow for collective immunity.

 Infection numbers in the country have been falling steadily since a spike on December 24 of almost 30,000 cases. There are currently around 15,000 new cases a day, similar to the level of infections Russia was seeing in mid-October.

There have been questions about the reliability of official coronavirus statistics in the past. But Boris Ovchinnikov, one of the founders of the e-commerce research agency "Data Insight," believes there might be "an even higher reduction in numbers than the official numbers indicate." He bases his research into infection rates on search engine data, for example on online searches into common coronavirus symptoms like losing your sense of smell. "In the East of the country the frequency of searches about smell has returned to summer levels," he tells DW.

Collective immunity?

Back at the GUM department store, Natalia Kuzenkova, the head doctor at several vaccination points and a local Moscow hospital, puts the falling infection numbers down to the vaccine — but only in part. "There is a level of immunity being created [in the population], bit by bit. There's immunity because people have been sick, some people didn't have any symptoms but do have antibodies." 

Mikhail Kostinov, the head of the Metchinikov Research Institute for Vaccines, also puts the falling numbers down to a mix of factors, including the vaccine, the general level of free health care in Russia and the fact that the authorities set up "mobile hospitals" to deal with the large influx of sick people. He adds that Russia is less densely populated than European countries on the whole, and has a lower life expectancy. "In Russia there are fewer old people, so the numbers are different."

People stand outside restaurants in the center of Moscow
With bars, restaurants and clubs open, life in the Russian capital feels almost normalImage: Mikhail Voskresenskiy/dpa/picture alliance

Back to normal

The falling numbers certainly aren't due to strict lockdown measures. In fact, the government never introduced a second lockdown after the one last spring. Instead authorities have been loosening coronavirus restrictions. In Moscow, for example, mask-wearing is still obligatory on public transport and inside public buildings, but museums, restaurants, bars and even clubs are open. The city's mayor recently declared employers no longer have to keep part of their staff working from home. Theaters, cinemas and concert halls can now work at 50% audience capacity.

In restaurants across the city, old stickers warning people to keep to social distancing measures are peeling off the tables that are often packed close together. Friends hug and business partners shake hands. 

Sofia Markova at the vaccination point's ice cream stand thinks there could be even fewer restrictions in Moscow. She personally doesn't plan to get Sputnik V for now. "I'm not afraid to get sick. I have good immunity." She laughs: "But if even foreigners are getting the vaccine, it's probably fine!"

Russia rolls out Sputnik vaccine