Vladimir Putin announced the approval of Russia’s Sputnik-V coronavirus vaccine on August 11 amid much fanfare, saying it works “quite effectively” in forming a stable immunity.
How would he know this? Because the Russian President revealed one of his daughters had already taken it.
Speaking on Russian state TV at the time, Putin said his daughter had a slightly higher temperature after each dose of the two-stage coronavirus vaccine, but that “Now she feels well.”
Russian authorities have singled out teachers – as well as doctors – as key workers who will get access to the vaccine first, even before crucial phase 3 human trials have finished.
But that’s not gone down well with some sections of these frontline workers who don’t buy Putin’s claims of the efficacy of the vaccine and are reluctant to be used as human guinea pigs.
On September 1, Russian classrooms reopened for the first time since March amid the Covid-19 pandemic – the same day the country surpassed 1 million coronavirus cases. Teachers were meant to be among the first to benefit from Russia’s new coronavirus vaccine, especially given the close contact with hundreds of children that they are exposed to on a daily basis. But CNN is learning that few – if any – have so far taken up the offer to be vaccinated.
Developed by the Moscow-based Gamaleya Institute, the Sputnik-V vaccine was named after the surprise 1957 launch of the world’s first satellite by the Soviet Union.
Russia’s claim of victory at being the first to approve a coronavirus vaccine in a worldwide pandemic was initially met with widespread concern and unanswered questions over its safety and effectiveness, and not just from outside the country.
A Russian teachers’ union, “Uchitel,” started an online petition calling on members to reject the vaccine outright on safety grounds, and expressing concern that vaccination – currently voluntary – should not be made mandatory unless clinical trials are complete.
Reality can differ from promises
Yuri Varlamov, a teacher in Moscow and a member of the union, said he doesn’t want to take the vaccine because he doesn’t believe it is safe right now.
“Before the end of trials, they cannot make it mandatory. But I know that in some schools and state bodies, people are talking about mandatory status of this vaccine by the end of this year,” Varlamov said.
Marina Balouyeva, co-chairman of the “Uchitel” union, said a petition against compulsory vaccination for teachers was more of a precaution.
Balouyeva said she is wary of Sputnik-V for several reasons. “Firstly, it is generally known that the quality of domestic vaccines is worse than that of foreign ones,” she said.
“Secondly, the vaccine was created at railway speed, which already raises concerns. It was created in haste.”
Despite promises from authorities that taking the vaccine will be voluntary, she said she fears things could go differently in reality, as often happens in Russian state institutions.
Balouyeva said no complaints have yet been made to her union from teachers saying they are being forced to be vaccinated. However, previous experience indicates there have been such problems with other vaccines, she says.
For example, officially, the seasonal flu shot is not mandatory for Russian educational workers – it is voluntary. But according to Balouyeva some schools require it from their employees without fail.
Whether there will be sanctions on those unwilling to be vaccinated with Sputnik-V, depends on the headteacher. Most schools have a so-called “incentive bonus” – a fund of money that the administration can distribute as they see fit. Some teachers could be deprived of this payment if they don’t get the vaccine.
Balouyeva is all too familiar with the consequences that follow if you go against the school administration.
Having successfully worked for 15 years as an English teacher at a correctional school for children with cerebral palsy in St. Petersburg, Balouyeva says she was fired last year for an “unexplained absence” for not working during a school holiday.
It happened shortly after she was publicly vocal about teachers’ salaries being lower than figures published in official documents.
“Teachers are a very disenfranchised category, just like doctors,” the former teacher said, adding that the temptation to test the vaccine on them is immense. “It is both cheap and practical – why not do it, from the point of view of the authorities?”
CNN was given access by local authorities to one of Moscow’s top public schools, where some measures – like testing and teachers in facemasks – have been implemented.
But no one CNN spoke to at School 1363 said they had taken the vaccine, although theysay they will “definitely” do so soon. Deputy head Maria Zatolokina said: “I think that every teacher understands how important it is to be safe and to create a safe environment for our students to be healthy. That’s why I hope that we are responsible people, and we should [all] be vaccinated.”
Critics such as Anastasia Vasilyeva, a Russian doctor turned prominent campaigner and ally of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, says the country’s push for a vaccine comes amid political pressure from the Kremlin, which is keen to portray Russia as a global scientific force. Navalny is currently being treated in a Berlin hospital after a suspected poisoning attempt in Siberia last month.
“I think it’s to show Russia is a big strong country, that Putin is a big strong president,” Vasilyeva told CNN.
Her colleague, a surgeon at a hospital in northeast Moscow, shared his concerns about the vaccine with CNN, strictly on the condition of anonymity, due to fear of facing repercussions at work, if he came out publicly against the vaccine. When offered the vaccine in early August, he started consulting with experts.
“I am not a vaccine specialist,” he admits, “So, I called the doctors who deal with vaccinations, I called immunologists. They said, ‘don’t do it, by no means, the vaccine is raw.’”
It was a friendly offer, he says, no pressure, no obligations. But no matter how hard the deputy chief physician tried to persuade the surgeon that the vaccine is “perfectly normal, good, amazing,” the doctor still was reluctant to try it on himself.
“Explain to me: how could it be that such powerful European and international organizations could not do it, but a relatively small Gamaleya Institute could? I cannot understand it,” the surgeon said.
He didn’t know when the vaccine would be delivered to his hospital but said very few of his colleagues would have the courage to refuse it.
“Totalitarianism remains [in Russia]. The two most helpless sectors are education and health care. Everything is done forcefully here. Last year I had a flu shot, everyone was told they needed to be vaccinated. And everyone did it, because if you don’t, there will be penalties.”
But it isn’t just doctors and teachers who voiced concerns Russia may have cut essential corners in development.
Polls suggest around half of Russian citizens have doubts about the vaccine, the Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said on Friday during a video conference with Putin. He added, however, that two months ago, the figure was almost 90%.
Sobyanin, who revealed he had been vaccinated with Sputnik-V, was speaking just moments after Russia published its peer-reviewed data from phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials in The Lancet medical journal, which suggest the Russian vaccine has a good safety profile and produced no serious adverse side effects.
Scientists not involved in the study said while the results are a positive sign, only larger, Phase 3 trials can confirm whether the vaccine actually prevents illness with Covid-19.
The Russian defense minister was also shown getting the shot. It seems Russia’s messaging about the vaccine has gone into full overdrive following the publication of its scientific data. It remains to be seen if the tide of public opinion and front-line workers will change over time too.